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Cox’s Halloween Gift: New Usage Caps, Overlimit Fees for Florida and Georgia Customers

coxAfter gracing Cleveland, Ohio with the dubious honor of being the first Cox service area in the country to be treated to compulsory data caps and overlimit fees, Cox Communications has announced it is expanding its internet overcharging scheme to customers in Florida and Georgia starting Nov. 21.

Stop the Cap! readers in both states shared Cox’s service change notification introducing hard caps in both states next month.

“Cox High Speed Internet packages include 1 TB (1,024 GB) of data,” Cox explains. “Approximately 99% of Cox customers are currently on a data plan that more than adequately meets their monthly household needs.”

That begs the question: if 99% of customers are unaffected by a data cap, then why have a data cap at all?

Cox “Data Plans”

Note: Unused data does not carry over to the next month.

Package Monthly Data Plan Speeds

Download / Upload

Starter 1 TB (1,024 GB) 5 Mbps / 1 Mbps
Essential 1 TB (1,024 GB) 15 Mbps / 2 Mbps
Preferred 1 TB (1,024 GB) 50 Mbps / 5 Mbps
Premier 1 TB (1,024 GB) 100 Mbps / 10 Mbps
Note: 150 Mbps / 20 Mbps in select areas
Ultimate 1 TB (1,024 GB) 200 Mbps / 20 Mbps
Note: 300 Mbps / 30 Mbps in select areas
Gigablast (Where Available) 2 TB (2,048 GB) 1 Gbps / 1 Gbps

Content managed by Cox included in Cox-provided services do not count toward data usage:

  • TV and On Demand content accessed in the Contour app while connected to Cox in-home Wi-Fi
  • Cox Digital Telephone
  • Cox Homelife

Note: Third party content and content identified as internet services on receivers or TVGO in the Contour app may count toward data usage.

Customers in these areas who exceed their allowance will be billed $10 for each 50GB of excess usage. Customers will get a two-month grace period to become accustomed to internet rationing before the overlimit fees are added to customers’ bills.

Cox has not said if or when it will expand the data caps to other markets.

Customers can send Cox a message by calling the company and threatening to take your business to another provider specifically because of data caps and overlimit fees. Affected customers should also file a complaint with the FCC asking the federal agency to ban data caps as unnecessary and discriminatory against competing online video services.

Let the FCC know data caps are a major concern and are unnecessary considering the steep decline in internet provisioning and transit costs and the extremely high price (and profitability) providers already get from offering unlimited broadband service.

Google Fiber’s CEO Out of a Job; Fiber Expansion on Hold Indefinitely in Many Cities

Down the rabbit hole

Down the rabbit hole

Google has quietly announced an indefinite suspension of further fiber expansion as it prepares to downsize fiber division employees and re-evaluate its fiber business model.

In a blog post tonight from Craig Barratt, senior vice president of Alphabet and CEO of Google’s Access division, it becomes clear Google is rethinking its entire fiber strategy and is likely moving towards fixed wireless technology going forward:

Now, just as any competitive business must, we have to continue not only to grow, but also stay ahead of the curve — pushing the boundaries of technology, business, and policy — to remain a leader in delivering superfast Internet. We have refined our plan going forward to achieve these objectives. It entails us making changes to focus our business and product strategy. Importantly, the plan enhances our focus on new technology and deployment methods to make superfast Internet more abundant than it is today.

Barratt outlines the immediate implications of Google’s dramatic shift:

  • In the cities where we’ve launched or are under construction, our work will continue;
  • For most of our “potential Fiber cities” — those where we’ve been in exploratory discussions — we’re going to pause our operations and offices while we refine our approaches. In this handful of cities that are still in an exploratory stage, and in certain related areas of our supporting operations, we’ll be reducing our employee base.


Barratt himself is jumping ship (or was pushed). He announced in his blog entry he is “stepping away” from his CEO role, but will remain as an “adviser.”

Observing Google’s recent fiber efforts and acquisitions, it seems clear Google no longer thinks fiber-to-the-home service is an economically viable solution in light of competitors like AT&T rolling out increasing amounts of fiber and the cable industry is on the cusp of launching DOCSIS 3.1, which will dramatically boost internet speeds without a substantial capital investment.

Google’s investors have been lukewarm about the company’s economic commitments relating to its fiber broadband networks. Often built from the ground up, Google’s fiber construction complexities also include trying to navigate costly roadblocks established by their competitors (notably Comcast and AT&T), dealing with bureaucracies and red tape even in states where near-total-deregulation was supposed to make competition easy. Google Fiber has also not proved to be a runaway economic success, and now faces more challenges in light of upgrades from their competitors. Cable companies have slashed prices for customers threatening to cancel and have added free services or upgrades to persuade customers to stay, and Google’s proposition of selling consumers $70 gigabit access has proved tougher than expected.

It is highly likely the future of Google’s Access business will be deploying wireless broadband solutions powered by Webpass, a company Google acquired earlier this year. Webpass uses a high-speed point to point wireless transmission system the company claims can deliver gigabit broadband access to customers in multi-dwelling buildings and other urban areas. Webpass sells access for $60 a month (discounted to $550/yr if paid in advance) for 100Mbps-1,000Mbps speed depending on network density and capacity in the customer’s building. So far, Webpass has not been able to guarantee speed levels, and some customers report significant variability depending on their location and network demand.

Webpass’ wireless infrastructure costs a fraction of what Google has coped with building fiber to the home networks, and the installation of point-to-point wireless antennas on participating buildings has been less of a regulatory nightmare than digging up streets and yards to lay optical fiber.

webpassBut despite Webpass’ claim its performance is comparable to fiber, its inability to guarantee customers a certain speed level and its tremendous performance variability from 100 to 1,000Mbps exposes one of the weaknesses of fixed wireless networks. At a time when capacity is king, only fiber optic networks have shown a consistent ability to deliver synchronous broadband speeds that do not suffer the variability of shared networks, poor antenna placement/signal levels, or harmful interference.

There is room for wireless technology to grow and develop, as evidenced by the wireless industry’s excitement surrounding future 5G networks and their ability to offer a home broadband replacement. The emergence of 5G competition is almost certainly also a factor in Google’s decision. But even AT&T and Verizon acknowledge a robust 5G network will require a robust fiber backhaul network to support both speed and user demand. The more users sharing a network, the slower the speed for all users. No doubt Webpass has made the same assumption that cable operators did in the early days of DOCSIS 1 — current internet applications won’t tax a network enough to create a traffic logjam that would be noticed by most customers. The phone companies also learned a similar lesson trying to serve too many DSL customers from inadequate middle mile networks or traffic concentration points. (Some phone companies are still learning.)

Whether it was yesterday’s peer-to-peer file sharing or today’s online video, capacity matters. That is why fiber broadband remains the gold standard of broadband technology. Fiber is infinitely upgradable, reliable, and robust. Wireless is not, at least not yet. But technology arguments rarely matter at publicly-traded corporations that answer to Wall Street and investors, and it appears Google’s backers have had enough of Google Fiber.

Stop the Cap!’s View

tollAt Stop the Cap!, we believe these developments further the argument broadband is an essential utility best administered for the public good and not solely as a profit-motivated venture. The path to fiber to the home service in rural, suburban, and urban communities has and will continue to come from a mix of private and public utilities, just as local public and private gas and electric companies have served this country for the last century. Where there is a business model for fiber to the home service that investors support, there is a for-profit fiber provider. Where there isn’t, now there is often no service at all. So far, the FCC in conjunction with Congress has seen fit to solve broadband availability problems by bribing private providers into offering service (usually low-speed DSL that does not even meet the FCC’s definition of broadband) with cash subsidies, tax write-offs, or occasional tax abatement schemes. Imagine if we followed that model with the nation’s public roads and highways. We would today be paying tolls or a subscription to travel down roads built and owned by a private company often financed by tax dollars.

Not every product or service needs to earn Wall Street-sized profits. Nobody needs to get rich selling water, gas, and electricity… or broadband. Public broadband networks can and should be established wherever they are needed, and they should be priced to recover their costs as well as expenses that come from support, billing, and ongoing upgrades. Naysayers like to claim municipal broadband is socialism run wild or an instant economic failure, yet the same model has provided Americans with reliable and affordable gas, electricity, and clean water for over 100 years.

Maine was made for municipal broadband.

Maine was made for municipal broadband.

In New York, publicly owned/municipal utilities often charge a fraction of the price charged by investor-owned utilities. In Rochester, where Stop the Cap! is headquartered, one need only ask a utility customer if they would prefer to pay the prices charged by for-profit Rochester Gas & Electric or live in a suburb where a municipal provider like Fairport Electric or Spencerport Electric offers service. RG&E has charged customers well over 10¢ a kilowatt-hour when demand peaks (along with a minimum connection charge of over $21/mo and a “bill issuance charge” of 72¢/mo). Spencerport Electric charges 2.9¢ a kilowatt-hour and a connection charge of $2.66 a month, and they issue their bills for free. There is a reason real estate listings entice potential buyers by promoting the availability of municipal utility service. The same has proven true with fiber-to-the-home broadband service.

The economic arguments predicting doom and gloom are far more wrong than right. Municipal utilities are often best positioned to offer broadband because they already have experience providing reliable service and billing and answer to the needs of their local communities. Incompetence is not an option when providing reliable clean water or electricity to millions of homes and customers have rated their public utilities far superior to private phone or cable companies.

Google’s wireless future may prove a success, but probably only in densely populated urban areas where a point-to-point wireless network can run efficiently and profitably. It offers no solution to suburban, exurban, or rural Americans still waiting for passable internet access. Clearly, Google is not the “free market” solution to America’s pervasive rural broadband problem. It’s time to redouble our efforts for public broadband solutions that don’t need a seal of approval from J.P. Morgan or Goldman Sachs.

New Video Player Launched on Stop the Cap! + Other Technical Issues

Phillip Dampier October 25, 2016 Editorial & Site News No Comments
Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

We are launching a new video player today on Stop the Cap! as we finally move away from Flash-embedded videos going forward. This player is in beta at this time. You can use the comments section to report any problems for investigation.

We are also aware of speed and responsiveness issues here (slow page loading times, HTTP Error 500 Internal server errors, etc.) and are investigating those as well.

After eight years looking largely the same, Stop the Cap! will also undergo a theme change to modernize our look and feel by the end of this year. Change isn’t always good when you do it for the sake of change, so we’ll be looking to retain simplicity and readability as much as possible to minimize your need to navigate.


Phillip M. Dampier
Editor, Stop the Cap!

Candidate Clinton’s Potential FCC Nominees Are All Establishment ‘Friends of Billary’

Phillip Dampier October 19, 2016 Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments

Sources close to the Clinton campaign told Politico three names are emerging as potential FCC nominees in a presumed Clinton Administration, and all three are close friends of Bill and Hillary Clinton, all have spent time traveling through the revolving door of D.C. politics and the private sector or lobbying, and one served as a FCC commissioner before under Bill Clinton’s presidency.

All three are classic D.C. Establishment types, so there should be no surprises or rebellion from within the Democratic ranks.



Susan Ness: A former FCC commissioner, Ness today serves as a top Clinton fundraiser. Prior to her FCC appointment, Ness was a senior lender to communications companies as a group head and vice president of a regional financial institution. She served as Assistant Counsel to the Committee on Banking, Currency and Housing of the U.S. House of Representatives, and she founded and directed the Judicial Appointments Project of the National Women’s Political Caucus. Ness is a member of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners’ Committee on Communications, the Federal Communications Bar Association, and Leadership Washington (Class of 1988). Before she joined the FCC, she served in many civic leadership roles, including chair of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Charter Review Commission; vice chair of the Montgomery County Task Force on Community Access Television; and president of the Montgomery County Commission for Women.

In her favor, Ness didn’t end her service with the FCC and become a paid lobbyist, preferring to spend her years outside of public service in the private sector. However, she was a director for Adelphia, America’s first criminally convicted cable company (the principal owners, the Rigas family, went to prison for a variety of white-collar crimes). Ness was also an apologist for the disastrous telecom deregulation policies of the Clinton Administration, which backfired and created mass corporate consolidation and higher bills for consumers.

In a speech in January 1999, Ness promised good times were ahead because of Clinton Administration’s support for deregulation:

It takes good business planning, raising capital, provisioning, and investment before the fruits of competition can be harvested. And sometimes companies succeed and sometimes they fail. That’s the marketplace at work.

That’s why I’ve been somewhat surprised at the impatience with which some pundits have viewed the level of local competition under the ’96 Act.

On the first anniversary, folks were asking “where’s the competition?” I observed then that this was like piling the family into the car for a long trip, and, before you’ve reached the end of the driveway, there is a plaintive voice from the back seat, “Are we there yet?”

No, we’re not there yet — even now, two years further into the journey.



Unfortunately for Americans, we’re still not there more than 15 years later. The marketplace and regulatory agencies have rigged the game into a comfortable duopoly where competition benefits exist primarily for new customers getting a sign-up promotion. Once expired, high prices predominate. Ness promised competition. We got consolidation and more deregulation instead, and Americans are paying some of the highest broadband and wireless prices in the world as a result. We’re uncertain if she has learned her lesson.

Karen Kornbluh: Her middle initials should be “D.C.” because she’s been there for so long. Kornbluh is the Democratic Party establishment through and through, with a record of public service dating back to the 1980s. From 1991-1994, she was a legislative aide for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) She spent two years at the Treasury Department, then spent three years as a Tech Fellow at the New America Foundation think tank. She served as a policy director for Barack Obama when he was a senator from Illinois and was appointed as ambassador to the OECD in 2009, which means she is at least aware of how poorly the U.S. compares in broadband speeds to the rest of the world. Kornbluh will not rock the boat as a FCC commissioner, but should be a reliable vote for all of a presumed President Clinton’s telecom initiatives.

Phil Verveer serves as a senior counselor to current FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, which may offer some continuity for Chairman Wheeler’s policies under the Obama Administration in a presumed Clinton Administration. Verveer is a longtime friend of the Clintons. He also served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and US Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy with Ambassadorial rank from 2009 to 2013.



Verveer has practiced communications and antitrust law in the government and in private law firms for more than 40 years.  From 1969 to 1981, he practiced as a trial attorney in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice, as a supervisory attorney in the Bureau of Competition of the Federal Trade Commission, and as the Chief of the Cable Television Bureau, and the Common Carrier Bureau of the Federal Communications Commission.  Between 1973 and 1977, he served at the Antitrust Division’s first lead counsel in the investigation and prosecution of United States v. American Tel. & Tel. Co., the case that eventuated in the divestiture of the Bell System.  As a bureau Chief at the FCC, Verveer participated in a series of decisions that enabled increased competition in video and telephone services, introduced asymmetric telecommunications regulation, and limited regulation of information services. But he was also a telecom lobbyist or counsel for Willkie, Farr and Gallagher (1999-2005) and Jenner & Block (2006-2009).

With those three names now out in the public view, Big Telecom lobbyists are reportedly “coalescing around those perceived to be frontrunners for a commission spot,” reports Politico.

“Nearly everyone on the list is part of the Clinton campaign’s network of tech advisers, which helped draft the Democratic nominee’s tech policy platform,” Politico adds, which means it is likely what Secretary Clinton has promised in her campaign documents about future telecom policy will likely move forward under the stewardship of her potential appointees who helped write it.

Charter’s New Hard Line on Promotions for Time Warner Cable/Bright House Will Drive Customers to the Exit

charter-twc-bhCharter Communications is taking a hard line against extending promotional pricing for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers and Wall Street predicts a major exodus of customers as a result.

UBS analyst John Hodulik predicts Charter’s new ‘Just Say No to Discounts’-attitude will result in customers saying ‘Cancel’ and he estimates a massive loss of at least 75,000 Time Warner Cable television customers in the third quarter as a result, with many more to follow.

Charter Communications’ executives have ordered a hard line against giving existing customers discounts and perpetually renewing promotional pricing, a practice Time Warner Cable has continued since the days of the Great Recession to keep customers happy.

Time Warner Cable and to a lesser extent Bright House have learned antagonized, price-sensitive customers were increasingly serious about cutting cable’s TV cord for good when the cost becomes too high to justify. Time Warner Cable dealt with this problem by giving complaining customers better deals, often repeatedly. That mitigated the problem of customer loss, allowed the company to retain and grow cable television customers and even helped minimize the practice of promotion shopping common in competitive service areas.

For years, Time Warner and Bright House customers learned they could enroll in a year-long promotion with the cable operator and then switch to a year-long new customer promotion from AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS and then jump back to the cable company with a new promotion. In many cases, they even got a gift card worth up to $300 for their trouble. Charter Communications thinks their new “pro-consumer policies” of not charging rapacious equipment fees and sticking to “simplified” prices will delight customers enough to keep their loyalty. Good luck.

Licensed to print money

Licensed to print money

Wall Street doesn’t believe Charter’s reputation or their ‘New Deal’ for TWC and BH customers will be perceived as making things better, especially for cable television and its cost. As customers roll off promotions at Time Warner Cable, the bill shock of watching rates rise up to $65 a month will speak for itself. The higher the price hike, the more likely it will provoke a family discussion about dropping cable television service for good.

In Los Angeles and Texas, where Charter premiered its new “simplified pricing” for Time Warner Cable customers, the response has been underwhelming, with many customers deriding it as “simply a price hike.”

David Lazarus, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, characterized the transition from TWC to Charter this way: “Meet the new cable company. Same as the old cable company.”

Culver City resident Jack Cohen provides good evidence of what happens when customers get their first bill from Charter, and it is higher than expected. Cohen received his first bill for $162, $22 more than his last Time Warner Cable bill of $140 a month, because his promotion with TWC expired. As a result, he canceled cable television after Charter wouldn’t budge on pricing. Cohen said “cancel” and never looked back. He now pays the new cable company $40 less than he gave Time Warner Cable, because he now only subscribes to broadband and phone service. Charter’s ‘simplified pricing’ cost the cable company more than the $22 extra they were originally seeking.

Lazarus learned when his own TWC promotional package expires in December, Charter had a great Christmas present waiting… for themselves. Lazarus’ $65 promotion will rise to $120 a month — almost double what he used to pay. But Charter also offered Lazarus a better deal he can refuse, a new Charter-Spectrum package of the same services for the low, low price of $85 a month — still a 30% rate hike.

In Texas, customers coming off promotions are learning first hand how Charter intends to motivate customers to abandon the Time Warner Cable packages Charter promised they could keep — by making them as unaffordable as possible and offering slightly less expensive Charter/Spectrum packages as an alternative.

“But it’s still $45 more than what I was paying Time Warner Cable for the same damn thing,” complained Ty Rogers to a Charter retention specialist, after his Time Warner Cable shot up once Charter took over. He is waiting for Google Fiber to arrive and then plans to cancel everything with Charter.

Charter’s billing practices also are dubbed the weirdest in the cable industry by The Consumerist, because Charter loves to hide taxes, surcharges, and fees by rolling them into other charges on the bill and cannot be accurately accounted for:

Charter breaks out federal, state, or local taxes and fees for some services (TV) but not for others (voice). Also, depending where you live and when you signed up for services, the taxes, fees, and surcharges that do appear may be listed under different sections of the bill or not at all.

While their procedure does result in many fewer line items for consumers, it does produce more confusing bills overall, and make it harder to compare against other providers in a truly apples-to-apples kind of way.

‘No, no, no,’ counters Charter/Spectrum to FierceCable.

“Our internet packages are competitively priced, but we offer faster starting speeds and don’t charge an additional modem lease fee on top of the cost of service (that is an additional $10 at legacy TWC),” Charter spokesman Justin Venech said. “That pricing is better and more attractive to customers. Our video packages are simpler and more robust. For example, our Spectrum Silver package includes over 175 channels plus premium channels HBO, Showtime and Cinemax while a comparable TWC package would have charged extra for premiums.  We don’t add on additional fees and taxes to our voice product that our competitors do, and our equipment pricing for video set-top boxes are much lower with Spectrum than our competitors or legacy TWC or BHN.  Our new Spectrum pricing is $4.99 for a receiver vs over $11 at legacy TWC.”

“That assumes, like every cable company always does, that we want HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax, don’t already own our own cable modem, and are not dancing in the streets over an even bigger television package filled with crap we don’t want,” said Rogers. “Charter also takes away Time Warner’s excellent long distance phone service, which let me call almost all of Europe without any toll charges or an extra cost calling package. I paid Time Warner $10 a month and could talk to someone in France all night long if I wanted. With Charter, it’s more for less.”

Rogers’ promotion included his DVR in the promotion, so comparing Charter’s $4.99 vs. TWC’s $11 for a DVR made no difference to him either.

“You can argue all day about the ‘value’ you are offering, but you can’t argue your way out of a bill that is $45 higher than last month,” Rogers complained.

Overall, the latest spate of cable mergers and AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV has been bad news for consumers, who face fewer competitive prospects and a new, harder line on promotional pricing. AT&T customers are discovering AT&T is more motivated to get U-verse TV customers to switch to DirecTV and less interested in providing discounts. The cable competition knows that, making fighting for a better deal much tougher if Charter’s only competitor in an area is AT&T. Cable operators also understand there is a built-in reluctance to switch to satellite by a significant percentage of their customers.

Charter’s pre-existing customers not a part of the TWC/BH merger are not too happy with Charter’s Spectrum offers either. At least 152,000 video customers said goodbye for good to the cable operator’s television packages.

Hodulik predicts there are more where that came from as the rest of the country gradually discovers what Charter has in store for them.

Watching HDTV Over-the-Air? Your TV Set Will Be Obsolete Sooner Than You Think

atsc-3-0If you cut the cord and are watching all of your HD programming over-the-air, we have some bad news. Your current television set will soon be obsolete.

TV stations across the country are making plans to switch to the next generation of digital television — ATSC 3.0, and it isn’t compatible with millions of television sets and adapter boxes still in daily use across the United States.

The other night I talked with a station engineer who reminded me that consumers are going to have a nasty surprise when local stations start disappearing from existing sets starting a few years from now. Consumer electronics stores will continue to slash prices to clear current television inventory without telling buyers they will eventually need an adapter or rely on cable or satellite television to keep that set working after ATSC 3.0 is fully implemented.

Broadcasters have already started to budget for replacement equipment, necessary to support the new standard. For them, it opens the door to significant new revenue streams and a better quality TV picture. For you, it could mean a bill for a new set, an adapter, or a paid subscription to keep your favorite shows.

At present, over-the-air digital stations in the United States use ATSC 1.0, developed more than 20 years ago. Despite the standard, it took until February 2009 for most television stations to discontinue their analog television broadcasts. To ease the transition, Congress mandated a DTV Converter Box Coupon Program, which subsidized the cost of digital adapters for every household in the country still using an analog-only television set. No such luck this time around. Consumers relying on over-the-air broadcasts will either have to replace their current sets or purchase adapters or dongles out-of-pocket to keep watching.

atsc-glueTo avoid a firestorm from the public, some station owners are thinking about a stop-gap measure that would launch a “digital bouquet” of participating local stations using lower bit rate Standard Definition on a single legacy ATSC 1.0 transmitter for at least a year or two until consumers upgrade their existing equipment. Then, one by one, existing HD stations would switch to ATSC 3.0 and effectively disappear from the dial of sets made before 2016. The good news is you would still have access to free television. The bad news is the picture will be significantly degraded.

Television stations are highly motivated to push for ATSC 3.0 as quickly as possible because it allows them to further monetize the spectrum the FCC allows them to use for free. For the first time, local stations will also be able to charge consumers directly to access broadcast television channels on portable devices like tablets and smartphones. ATSC 3.0 is based on Internet Protocol, allowing stations to blend broadcast and internet content. One of the unique changes ATSC 3.0 will allow is geographical or viewer-targeted commercials. A viewer in the suburbs could theoretically get a different commercial than another living in the city while watching the same station.

Television shows, transmitted in much higher-quality 4K, will also be accompanied by improved high quality audio and will integrate with online content that will run along with the show a viewer is watching. Theoretically, a viewer can lose over the air reception and have their internet connection seamlessly continue to stream the station in fringe reception areas. But viewers will likely be charged for that privilege.

ATSC 3.0 is also considerably more efficient than the current standard, which allows stations to add more digital sub-channels to their lineup, and deliver them in higher quality. That is a very important consideration as the FCC auctions away much of the current UHF television dial to mobile phone companies looking for boost wireless data capacity. ATSC 3.0 likely won’t be on the scene in a major way until after the FCC repacks current UHF stations closer together on the reduced number of UHF channels still left.

Some stations are expected to lease sub-channel space to third parties, which could start another avalanche of religious and home shopping channels, which often pay for coverage. If you have an Ion TV affiliate in your area, you already have an idea of what that looks like. In addition to a primary Ion TV channel, the broadcaster multiplexes 6 sub-channels – Qubo, Ion Life, The Worship Network, Ion Shop, QVC, and Home Shopping Network.

Currently, many major commercial stations support one or two sub-channels, often used for networks like Bounce, Antenna TV, MeTV, local weather and news, and shopping. But with an abundance of extra bandwidth, stations could add ethnic channels, time-shifted network shows, and a plethora of additional channels. That’s good news for cord-cutters looking for more over-the-air entertainment, but it will require an investment in a new set or an adapter to participate.

An introduction to ATSC 3.0 produced by the committee working on the standard. It doesn’t mention you will need a new television or adapter to watch. (3:15)

Pondering the Future of AT&T’s Dead-Brand Walking U-verse, DirecTV, and Data Caps

att directvWith the advent of AT&T/DirecTV Now, AT&T’s new over-the-top streaming TV service launching later this year, AT&T is preparing to bury the U-verse brand.

Earlier this year, AT&T customers noticed a profound shift in the company’s marketing priorities. The phone company began steering potential customers to AT&T’s latest acquisition, satellite television provider DirecTV, instead of U-verse. There is an obvious reason for this – DirecTV has 20.45 million customers as of the second quarter of 2016 compared to 4.87 million customers for AT&T U-verse TV. Volume discounts make all the difference for pay television companies and AT&T hopes to capitalize on DirecTV’s lower programming costs.

AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV confused many Wall Street analysts, some who believe the days of satellite television are past their peak. Satellite providers lack the ability to bundle services, although some phone companies partner with the satellite company to pitch phone, broadband, and satellite TV to their customers. But consider for a moment what would happen if DirecTV introduced satellite television without the need for a satellite dish.

Phillip Dampier: The "U" in U-verse doesn't stand for "unlimited."

Phillip Dampier: The “U” in U-verse doesn’t stand for “unlimited.”

AT&T’s DirecTV Now will rely on the internet to deliver television channels instead of a satellite. AT&T is currently negotiating with most of the programmer conglomerates that own popular cable channels to allow them to be carried “over-the-top” through broadband connections. If successful, DirecTV Now could become a nationwide powerhouse alternative to traditional cable TV.

AT&T is clearly considering a potential future where DirecTV could dispense with satellites and rely on broadband instead. The company quietly began zero rating DirecTV streaming in September for AT&T Mobility customers, which means watching that programming will not count against your data plan. For current U-verse customers, broadband speeds have always been constrained by the need to reserve large amounts of bandwidth to manage television viewing. Although AT&T has been boosting speeds in selected areas, a more fundamental speed boost could be achieved if AT&T dropped U-verse television and turned the service into a simple broadband pipe that relied on DirecTV Now to manage television service for customers.

AT&T seems well on the way, adding this notice to customer bills:

“To make it simpler for our customers U-verse High Speed Internet and U-verse Voice services have new names: AT&T Internet and AT&T Phone. AT&T Internet product names will now align with our Internet speed tiers. Our voice plan names will remain the same.”

An earlier internal company memo suggested AT&T would eventually transition all of its TV products into “AT&T Entertainment” after completing a transition to its “next generation TV platform.” Increasingly, that platform seems to be an internet-powered streaming solution and not U-verse or DirecTV satellite. That transition should begin in January.

Top secret.

Gone by end of 2016.

It would represent a formidable change, but one that makes sense for AT&T’s investors. The transition to IP networks means providers will offer one giant broadband pipe, across which television, phone and internet access will travel. The bigger that pipe becomes, the more services customers are likely to use — and that means growing data usage. Having a lot of fiber infrastructure also lays the foundation for expansion of AT&T’s wireless network — particularly towards 5G service, which is expected to rely on small cell technology to offer faster speeds to a more localized area — fast enough to serve as a home broadband replacement. Powering that network will require plenty of fiber optics to provide backhaul access to those small cells.

Last week, AT&T announced it launched a trial 100Mbps service using point-to-point millimeter-wave spectrum to offer broadband to subscribers in multiple apartment complexes around the Minneapolis area. If the initial trial is successful, AT&T will boost speeds to include 500Mbps service to those same complexes. AT&T has chosen to provide the service outside of its usual service area — Minneapolis is served by CenturyLink. AT&T acquired a nationwide license to offer service in the 70-80GHz band back in 2009, and an AT&T spokesperson claimed the wireless signal can reach up to two miles. The company is also experimenting with new broadband over power lines technology that could offer service in rural areas.

cheapJust like its wireless service, AT&T stands to make money not just selling access to broadband and entertainment, but also by metering customer usage to monetize all aspects of how customers communicate. Getting customers used to the idea of having their consumption measured and billed could gradually eliminate the expectation of flat rate service, at which point customers can be manipulated to spend even more to access the same services that cost providers an all-time low to deliver. Even zero rating helps drive a belief the provider is doing the customer a favor waiving data charges for certain content, delivering a value perception made possible by that provider first overcharging for data and then giving the customer “a break.”

As of mid-September, streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn noted Akamai — a major internet backbone transit provider — was selling content delivery contracts at $0.002 per gigabyte delivered, the lowest price Rayburn has ever seen. Other bids Rayburn has reviewed recently topped out at 0.5 cents per gigabyte. According to industry expert Dave Burstein, that suggests large ISPs like AT&T are paying something less than a penny per gigabyte for internet traffic.

“If you use 139GB a month, that costs your provider something like $1/month,” Burstein wrote, noting doubling backbone transit costs gives a rough estimate of the cost to the carrier, which also has to carry the bits to your local exchange. In this context, telecom services like broadband and phone service should be decreasing in cost, not increasing. But the opposite is true. Large providers with usage caps expect to be compensated many times greater than that, charging $10 for 50GB in overlimit fees while their true cost is well under 50 cents. Customers buying a cell phone are often fitted with a data plan that represents an unprecedented markup. The extent of price increases customers can expect can be previewed by looking at the cost of phone service over the last 20 years. The average, often flat rate telephone bill in 1995 was $19.98 a month. In 2014, it was $73 a month. In 2015, it was $90 a month. Those dramatically rising prices in the last few years are mostly as a result of the increased cost of data plans providers charge to clean up on customers’ growing data usage.

Both Comcast and AT&T are dedicated to a campaign of getting customers to forget about flat rate, unlimited service at a reasonable cost. Even as both companies raise usage caps, they continue to raise prices as well, even as their costs to provide the service continue to drop. Both companies hope to eventually create the kind of profitable windfall with wired services that wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have enjoyed for years since they abandoned unlimited flat rate plans. Without significant new competition, the effective duopoly most Americans have for telecommunications services offers the opportunity to create a new, more costly (and false) paradigm for telecom services, based on three completely false claims:

  • data costs are expensive,
  • usage must be monetized, and
  • without a bigger return on investment, investors will not finance the next generation of telecom upgrades.

But as the evidence clearly shows, profits from selling high-speed internet access are only growing, even as costs are falling. Much of the drag on profits come from increasing costs related to licensing television content. Voice over IP telephone service is almost an afterthought for most cable and phone companies, often thrown in for $10-20 a month.

AT&T’s transition puts all the attention and its quest for fatter profits on its broadband service. That’s a bad deal for AT&T customers no matter what the company calls its “next generation” network.

Programmer Conglomerates Preparing to Ax Smaller Cable TV Networks


Is this the future of satellite TV?

Ten years ago, large programmers like NBC-Universal, Fox, Viacom, and Time Warner started bundling new niche channels into their programming packages, forcing pay television providers to add networks few wanted just to get a contract renewal agreement in place for the networks they did want. Now, in the era of cord-cutting, those programming conglomerates are preparing to slim down.

One of the largest — Comcast/NBCUniversal — is the first to admit “there are just too many networks,” to quote NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.

Burke warned investors back in July that axing networks like Style and G4 was just the beginning.

“You’ll see us and others trimming channels,” Burke said during Comcast’s second-quarter earnings call. “We will continue to invest what we need to invest into our bigger channels, and we’ll continue to trim the smaller ones.”

Cable operators hope that day arrives sooner rather than later as cord-cutting continues to have an impact on cable-TV subscriptions.

For every popular cable network like USA and Bravo, cable operators get stuck carrying ratings-dogs like CNBC World, Centric, Cloo, VH1 Classic, Fox Business Network, and Fuse — all of which attract fewer than 100,000 viewers nationwide at any one time. Fuse barely attracted 51,000 viewers in 2015. But just about every cable TV customer pays for these channels, and many more.

Many cable channels wouldn’t survive without subscription fees because advertisers consider them too small to warrant much attention.

cable tvWhile Burke’s prediction has yet to slash the cable dial by more than a few networks so far, it has slowed down the rate of new network launches considerably. One millennial-targeted network, Pivot, will never sign on because it failed to attract enough cable distribution and advertisers, despite a $200 million investment from a Canadian billionaire. Time, Inc.’s attempts to launch three new networks around its print magazines Sports Illustrated, InStyle and People have gone the Over The Top (OTT) video route, direct to consumers who can stream their videos from the magazines’ respective websites.

Fierce Cable this week opined that forthcoming cord cutter-targeted TV packages streamed over the internet from players including DirecTV/AT&T and Hulu, among others, will likely start a war of cable network attrition, which may make the concept of a-la-carte cable a thing of the past. Editor Daniel Frankel believes the future will be a finite number of cable networks delivered primarily over IP networks, which are expected to dramatically pare down the traditional cable TV bundle into fewer than 100 channels. Only the most popular networks will be included in a traditional cable TV lineup, and some of these providers expect to deliver a bundle of fewer than 50 channels, including local stations. Those booted out of the bundle may still find life from viewers going OTT, if those networks can attract enough people to watch.

AT&T is hoping for the best of both worlds as it prepares to launch an internet-based package of networks under its DirecTV brand called DirecTV Now. Sources told Bloomberg News AT&T is hoping DirecTV Now will attract more subscribers by 2020 than its satellite service. At some point in the future, it may even replace DirecTV’s satellite television service.

directvDirecTV Now is expected by the end of this year and will likely offer a 100 channel package of programming priced at between $40-55 a month, viewable on up to two screens simultaneously. The app-based service will be available for video streaming to televisions and portable devices like tablets and phones. No truck rolls for installation, no service calls, and no equipment to buy or rent are all attractive propositions for AT&T, hoping to cut costs.

Since AT&T has taken over DirecTV, it has lost over 100,000 satellite customers. The threat to AT&T U-verse TV is also significant as customers increasingly look for alternatives to cable TV’s bloated and expensive programming packages. AT&T no doubt noticed the impending arrival of Hulu’s cable TV streaming platform next year and other services like Sling TV. Deploying their own streaming alternative with AT&T’s volume discounts from the combined subscribers of DirecTV and U-verse means AT&T can sell its streaming service at a substantial discount.

If consumers find the offerings from DirecTV Now and Hulu a credible alternative to traditional cable television, cord cutting could dramatically accelerate, provoking a response from cable operators likely to offer their own slimmed-down packages. So being among the 100 or so networks carried on DirecTV Now, or among the 50 or so networks Hulu is planning to offer, could be crucial to the future survival of any cable network. Those stranded in the 500-channel Universe of today’s cable television packages could be forced off the air or to an alternative means of reaching an audience such as OTT.

The lesson learned by the cable television industry is that customers are tapped out and unwilling to pay ever-rising cable TV bills for dozens of networks they’ve never watched and don’t intend to. The longer term lesson may be even more scary for some networks. Live, linear television as a concept may have seen its time come and go, at least for entertainment programming. While viewers are always going to seek live television for sports and breaking news, alternative on-demand viewing of everything else, preferably commercial-free, is a growing priority for many, especially if the price is right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheeler's compromise

Wheeler’s compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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