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Cable Industry & Friends Freak Out Over Set-Top Box Competition: It Destroys Everything

comcast-set-topIt’s all hands on deck for a cable industry desperate to protect billions in revenue earned from a monopoly stranglehold on the set-top box, now under threat by a proposal at the FCC to open up the market to competition.

While cable industry groups decry the proposal as a solution looking for a problem, at least 99 percent of cable customers are required to lease the equipment they need to watch pay television. That has become a reliable source of revenue for the industry and set-top box manufacturers, who share the $231 each customer pays a year in rental fees. Collectively that amounts to $20 billion in annual revenue. The FCC argues there is ample evidence cable operators and manufacturers are taking advantage of that captive marketplace, raising rental fees an average of 185% over the last 20 years while other electronic items have seen price declines as much as 90 percent.

With that kind of money on the line and a recent statement from the Obama Administration it fully supports FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler’s proposal, Wall Street has gotten jittery over cable stocks — a clear sign investors are worried about the economic impact of additional competition and lower prices.

Wheeler

Wheeler

“Instead of spending nearly $1,000 over four years to lease a set of behind-the-times boxes, American families will have options to own a device for much less money that will integrate everything they want — including their cable or satellite content, as well as online streaming apps — in one, easier-to-use gadget,” Jason Furman, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a White House blog post.

The proposal would coordinate the establishment of an “open standard” for set-top box technology, making it possible for multiple manufacturers to enter the market and compete.

The idea is not without precedent. The cable modem marketplace uses a DOCSIS standard any manufacturer can use to launch their own modem. Once the modem is certified, broadband consumers can choose to either rent the modem from their cable operator ($10 a month from Time Warner) or buy one outright, usually for less than $70, easily paying for itself in less than one year.

But the set-top box proposal just doesn’t add up, argues Comcast — one of the strongest opponents of Chairman Wheeler’s proposal.

“A new government technology mandate makes little sense when the apps-based marketplace solution also endorsed by the FCC’s technical advisory committee is driving additional retail availability of third-party devices without any of the privacy, diversity, intellectual property, legal authority, or other substantial concerns raised by the chairman’s mandate,” wrote David Cohen, Comcast’s top lobbyist.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) — the country’s largest cable industry lobbying group, said much the same thing.

The Roku set top streaming device.

The Roku set-top streaming device.

“By reading the White House blog, you have to wonder how they could ignore that the world’s largest tech companies — which are often touted in other Administration initiatives — including Apple, Amazon, Google, Netflix and many others are providing exactly the choice in video services and devices that they claim to want,” the NCTA wrote.

Their argument is that a competitive set-top box market has already emerged without any interference from the FCC. Time Warner Cable, for example, voluntarily offers most of its lineup on the Roku platform. Comcast’s XFINITY TV app allows subscribers to watch cable channels over a variety of iOS and Android devices. Several operators also support videogame consoles as an alternative to renting set-top boxes.

But few allow customers to completely escape renting at least one set-top box, especially for premium movie channels. Others don’t support more than one or two streaming video consoles like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV.

In Canada, cable customers can often buy their own set-top boxes and DVRs (known as PVRs up north) from major electronics retailers like Best Buy. For example, Shaw customers in western Canada can purchase a XG1 500GB HD Dual Tuner PVR with 6 built-in tuners and a 500GB hard drive (upgradable), which supports recording up to 6 HD shows simultaneously, for under $350. With some cable companies charging up to $15 a month for similar equipment, it would take just under two years to recoup the purchase cost. Many cable subscribers rent the same DVR for as long as five years before the hard drive starts acting up, necessitating replacement (of the drive).

Endangered?

Endangered cable network? Minority programmers say set-top box competition will destroy their networks.

Arguing the technical issues of cable box competition isn’t apparently enough of a winning argument, so the industry has drafted the support of minority cable programmers and friendly legislators who have taken Hyperbole Hill with declarations that set-top box competition will result in “the ultimate extinction of minority and special-interest programmers.”

How?

A competitive set-top box manufacturer may decide to ignore the way cable channels are now numbered on the cable dial. With everything negotiable, many programmers offer discounts or other incentives to win a lower channel number, avoiding the Channel Siberia effect of finding one’s network on a four digit channel number that channel surfers will likely never reach.

Their fear is that an entity like Google or Apple will pay no attention to how Comcast or Time Warner chooses to number its channels, and will use a different system that puts the most popular channels first.

Fees:

Fees: $34.95 for TV package, $35.90 in equipment and service fees.

But that assumes consumers care about channel numbers and not programs. Those who argue the days of linear TV are coming to an end doubt opening the set-top box market up for competition presents the biggest threat to these minority and specialty programmers. Those that devote hours of their broadcast day to reruns and program length commercials are probably at the most risk, because they lack quality original programming viewers want to see.

Hal Singer, who produces research reports for the telecom industry-backed Progressive Policy Institute, even goes as far as to suggest competitive set-top boxes will discourage telephone companies from building fiber to the home service, because they won’t get the advertising revenue for TV service they might otherwise receive from a captive set-top box market. But Singer ignores the fact Verizon effectively stopped substantial expansion of its FiOS network in 2010 (except in Boston) and AT&T now focuses most of its marketing on selling DirecTV service to TV customers, not U-verse – it’s fiber to the neighborhood service.

But Singer may be accurate on one point. If the cable industry loses revenue from set-top box rental fees, it may simply raise the rates it charges for cable television to make up the difference.

“So long as high-value customers for home video also demand more set-top boxes—a reasonable assumption—then pay TV operators can use metering to reduce the total price of home entertainment for cable customers,” Singer opines. “If this pricing structure were upended by the FCC’s proposal, economic theory predicts that pay TV prices would rise, thereby crowding out marginal video customers.”

2016 Edition: Fighting for a Better Deal from Time Warner Cable; Save $600+ Annually

badbillFor the fourth year, Stop the Cap! is pleased to bring you our advice on how to win yourself a better deal from Time Warner Cable. If you are paying regular price for Time Warner Cable service, you are throwing money away. There is no award for being a loyal cable customer these days. Only new customers and those willing to demand a better price get the best deals, while everyone else pays astoundingly high rates.

We are rarely surprised by anything, but even we confess astonishment as customers continue to show us their $180-250 cable bills. Most have been customers for decades and have never bothered to ask Time Warner if they could be getting a better deal. They should have asked us because the answer is absolutely yes. If you can devote about one hour a year and are willing to do some homework, even those coming off a promotion can save hundreds of dollars a year and get better service.

For those accustomed to badgering the cable company for a better deal year after year, we have some troubling news. Time Warner Cable is making things harder for you. In years past, customers only needed to use social media like Twitter or Facebook and ask for a better price and the cable company usually called back with a great promotional offer for the next year. Those days ended last fall, when the company began channeling current customer promotions almost exclusively through its national customer retention call centers. Even the oldest method of all — showing up at a local cable store with boxes in tow ready to turn in as you threaten to cancel service over its cost today often results in a shrug of the shoulders and an admission cable store employees are increasingly unable to offer customers promotions to entice them to stay. We saw this ourselves this week. As a result, Time Warner Cable lost that customer on the spot.

So why do cable companies play this game with their customers year after year? In a word, it’s all about the money. At least 80% of Time Warner Cable customers are still paying the company $10 a month to rent a cable modem customers can buy for themselves for as little as $50. Why do they keep paying? Because it’s a hassle or the customer believes they are incapable of installing their own. Even those who fought and won up to $1,100 in savings last year procrastinate after that promotion expires and put off trying to renew it. Why? Because few people relish debating for discounts. It’s a chore. But you say the same thing about doing your taxes, so it’s time to get some discipline and get this done. We’re even going to walk you through the process and share the tricks and traps you are likely to encounter along the way and how to get past them. How do we know? We have Time Warner Cable service too.

Heads Up: Time Warner Cable & Charter Communications — You may have read that Charter Communications is in the process of acquiring Time Warner Cable. Most state regulators with the exception of California (where approval isn’t a done deal at the time of writing) have approved the sale and federal regulators seem likely to follow, with a number of conditions Charter will have to meet going forward. For the rest of 2016, even if the deal is approved, we don’t expect many immediate changes. You are likely to see the Time Warner Cable name, packages, and pricing remain the same for most of this year. Next year, we expect Charter will want to retire Time Warner’s name and packages and move customers to their Spectrum product suite, at new customer pricing for all for the first year. We will update readers as needed to explain the transition, but it should not affect any promotions you win for at least the next year.

Getting Ready to Deal

courtesy: abcnews

Time to cut the cable TV bill down to size.

Based on reader input and our own experiences, you are going to find Time Warner Cable less willing to volunteer their lowest price promotions as they have in the past. Customer retention call center workers are trained to try to keep your business without giving away too much to customers threatening to leave. That is why doing your homework is essential before you call.

The most common reasons people call threatening to cancel service are:

  • a poor service experience
  • a rate increase or the end of a promotion that results in a higher rate
  • a better deal from the competition

When you call to cancel service, a representative will seek to understand your reasons and attempt to save you as a customer. If you respond you don’t like the picture quality or your Internet is constantly going out, you are unlikely to get a promotion. You’ll be offered a one-time service credit and a repair visit. If you are calling to cancel over a rate hike notice, they will probably offer a tepid promotion that effectively wipes out the rate increase, but still leaves you paying a lot more than you should. The best offers are designed in response to marketing from competitors trying to steal you away as a customer.

Doing Your Homework

This year your key word is: UPGRADED. Your local phone company just notified your neighborhood better service and a better deal is now available.

This year’s key word is: UPGRADED. Your local phone company just notified your neighborhood better service and a better deal is now available.

We believe the best deals will go to customers prepared to bring a competitor’s offer for them to match. If Time Warner’s local competitors are Google Fiber or Verizon FiOS, you are probably going to get a great deal without a lot of effort. In the northeast, Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable have had to face the fact if a customer of either doesn’t get an excellent deal to stay, they are going to switch to the other for one or two years and then switch back after the promotion expires. We’ve seen retention offers in these areas that even include high value gift card rebate offers normally reserved exclusively for customers able to prove (with their final bill) they are leaving one provider for the other. In areas where Time Warner Cable competes with AT&T U-verse, negotiations can get tougher. Time Warner Cable retention operators will listen to your claim you can get a better deal from AT&T or DirecTV and then try to trip you up by asking a lot of questions about 1-2 year contracts, HD fees, set-top equipment fees, broadband speeds, and other sneaky fees AT&T loves to slap on their bills but not always disclose in their advertising.

Things can get even tougher if their only significant competitor is Frontier Communications, HawTel, Windstream, CenturyLink, or other independent telephone companies. Most customers still can’t get TV service except through a companion offer with a satellite company and broadband typically comes in the form of underwhelming DSL. Time Warner Cable has a database of their competitors’ promotions and packages, and they respond to your price match request by trying to find the offer you want them to match in their system. When they find it (or something close to it), the call center operator will respond with a series of challenging statements to cut the apparent value of that promotion. For example, they will claim the competing offer does not include certain features Time Warner includes at no extra charge or doesn’t include various equipment, programming and other hidden fees that raise the price.

If you concede this, the price they will ultimately match is likely to be higher than what you originally thought. It may even sound reasonable to you, because you are used to “gotcha” and hidden fees that are already on your current Time Warner bill (fees the retention operator usually “forgets” to mention Time Warner also charges when they claim to be making an “apple to apple” comparison of the two offers.) That’s their game and it is designed to confuse and overwhelm you. We are going to teach you how to avoid getting on board their carnival carousel.

The key word for 2016 is: UPGRADED, as in their competitor ‘just notified you they have upgraded your neighborhood to a better level of service with a great limited time, local promotion just for customers like you.’

As AT&T and other phone companies continue to upgrade their networks to deliver video, phone and better broadband service, you can shut down the debate about DSL broadband speed and the many deficiencies of telephone company partnerships with satellite TV providers. Instead, you will explain the phone company can now match the speed Time Warner is selling (or at least the speed you need), and with services like Frontier FiOS TV/Vantage TV, CenturyLink’s Prism, Hawtel’s TV, and Windstream’s Kinetic TV, you don’t need a satellite dish to watch anymore.

A Time Warner Cable call center.

A Time Warner Cable call center.

But before we begin negotiations, a review of what you are already paying for is in order. Go and grab your latest Time Warner Cable bill.

If you are a broadband-only customer, you’ve probably received many offers to add television service. Those with cable television and broadband may be getting cards in the mail offering to add phone service for an additional $10 a month. Those customers identified as likely premium movie channel subscribers are getting offers to add multiple premiums at a special price. This practice is known as upselling, and it is how your $150 cable bill quickly rose to well over $200 once those limited-time promotions end and regular prices begin.

Here are some common cable TV add-ons that may be still lurking on your bill, are optional and may be removed on request:

  • Variety Pass (a/k/a Preferred TV): Just over 60 channels of lesser-known and slightly more expensive cable networks and their cousins. Includes MTV, Aspire, Cooking Channel, FOX Sports, Crime and Investigation Channel, GSN, LOGO, and National Geographic, among dozens of others. This package is very common and can often be downgraded to a 70+ Standard TV package.
  • HD Pass: Usually 4-6 channels of uniquely expensive basic cable networks. Most customers probably added this during the days of HDNet — a network Time Warner Cable dropped several years ago. Today, you are probably paying $3-5 a month extra for networks like beIN SPORTS, MGM HD, RFD HD, and Smithsonian. If these don’t interest you, drop this add-on.
  • TWC Sports Pass: More than two dozen additional sports channels that come at a hefty price. If you need to get your cable TV bill down, this is a good place to start.
  • TWC Movie Pass: Once affordable, this package of Disney Family Movies On Demand, TWC Movie Pass On Demand, and at least eight Encore movie channels has seen steady rate increases, especially over the last three years. It may no longer be worth it.
  • Various Premium Channels: HBO alone now costs $16.99 a month. Other premiums have also seen prices rise these last few years. But for $20-30 more, depending on the promotion, you can have every premium channel for a year, usually including HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, The Movie Channel, Epix, and Starz. Don’t leave your money on their table.
The TWC Digital Adapter was supposed to cost $0.99 a month. It's now $3.25.

The TWC Digital Adapter was supposed to cost $0.99 a month. It’s now $3.25.

With the latest round of rate hikes, renting equipment from Time Warner has gotten more expensive than ever. Do you still need a traditional set-top box in the guest bedroom or kids’ rooms if they are not even interested in cable TV? Each box and remote can add up to $7-9 a month depending on your package. DVR service is also increasingly costly because Time Warner charges customers for both the equipment and the service. An enhanced DVR capable of recording up to six shows at once is a nice addition, but it can easily add over $20 a month to your bill in equipment and service fees. If you find you aren’t using the DVR as often as you used to, it may be time to switch back to a traditional set-top box, which costs much less.

If you have TVs in spare bedrooms or the kitchen hooked up with Time Warner’s Digital Adapters, you will find the price for those has also increased dramatically. Initially promised for $0.99 a month, they now cost $3.25 each. This year, we recommend returning them and buying one or more Roku 2 2015 Edition ($70) units instead, which can deliver cable TV to your spare TV sets over your home Wi-Fi. (Also available on: Roku 3, All Roku 2 Models, Roku LT, Roku HD (2500X), the Roku Streaming Stick, Kindle Fire HD & HDX, Samsung Smart TV, Xbox 360 and Xbox One.) Time Warner provides their lineup on these devices with a free app. A one time equipment purchase will pay for itself in a few years, give instant access to Hulu, Netflix, and other services and offer a less frustrating experience.

Cable modems are another piece of equipment you should not be renting from Time Warner. These devices work with your Internet service and now cost $10 a month. The top recommended Arris (formerly Motorola) SB-6141 can be purchased on eBay for around $50 (for refurbished units) and from retail outlets for $70-80 (new). If you are still renting a modem from Time Warner, go and buy one today.

Am I Getting a Good Deal?

While tempting, these offers usually require upgrades that raise the price. For example, Whole House DVR mandatory service and equipment fees add $11.75 a month per cable box, with at least two boxes required.

While tempting, these typical Time Warner Cable offers usually require upgrades that raise the price. For example, Whole House DVR mandatory service and equipment fees add $11.75 a month per cable box, with a two-box minimum. That gift card offer is only good if you are able to prove you are switching from another provider and can produce a copy of your final bill.

This is the part people dread the most — having to haggle over their cable bill. How do you know if the offer Time Warner gives you is a good one? The answer is: by comparing it against the competition and what Time Warner would charge new customers for the same services. If it is within that range, you’ve done okay. If you keep pushing far beyond that, you are likely to find diminishing returns and increasing aggravation – sometimes an offer promised on the phone never even makes it to your bill, because it was offered in error. Then it becomes a dispute over crediting the difference between an offer promised and one actually received. We also don’t recommend people push for rebate cards, because even if you are offered one to keep your business, you usually will not qualify for it because you typically cannot meet the rebate’s terms and conditions, resulting in a rejection letter several months later from the third-party rebate processor.

To find out pricing of current promotions, start by visiting the phone company’s website to see what it has to offer. After that, it is off to Time Warner Cable’s website, pretending to be a new customer and creating a package similar or identical to what you receive today.

PrismTV + Internet, from CenturyLink

PrismTV + Internet, from CenturyLink. This service is being introduced in a number of CenturyLink-served communities.

Along the way, take note of fine print disclosures about contract terms, equipment fees, surcharges, etc. Some new customer offers increase in price during the second year, but ignore that. You are only negotiating for a better price for one year. In general terms, you are probably going to find new customer prices averaging in this range:

  • Broadband only: $34.95/mo for 12 months (Standard service)
  • Triple Play (broadband, TV + Enhanced DVR, phone): $99.99/mo for 12 months (30Mbps service)
  • Double Play (broadband + TV): Expect to pay around $80-90 for Standard/Turbo/Extreme broadband with traditional 200+ channel Preferred TV (periodic promotions offer enhanced speed broadband at the higher side of this price range)

Be aware most promotions start with lowball offers that do not include equipment like the very popular and expensive DVR (with the equipment and service fee), and the additional cost of a second set-top box many people have in their master bedroom. There are also Broadcast TV and Sports Programming surcharges increasingly charged by providers, and the usual taxes and fees.

No, dealing with Time Warner Cable won't reduce you to tears.

No, dealing with Time Warner Cable won’t reduce you to tears.

If you want to save time and are comfortable with a triple play package including 200+ channel Preferred TV with DVR and one additional standard HD set-top box, Ultimate Internet (50Mbps or 300Mbps in Maxx-upgraded areas), and Unlimited local/nationwide home phone service with voicemail, you should be able to easily negotiate a price hovering around $120-130 a month. We pay closer to the high side of that range after subscribing to “whole house” DVR service, which allows you to watch shows recorded on a DVR in another room. That price represents about a $50/month savings over the $175 price we would pay with the lesser promotion they offered us after the most recent one expired. If you are in a more competitive market with an even better deal than we found from our local providers, Time Warner should be able to match it too.

It’s Time to Make the Cancel Call

We’re getting close to making that phone call. Just one more reminder: the retention operator will probably try to question your competitor’s deal. That is where our magic word UPGRADED comes in. You are going to stay resolute the competitor’s offer you negotiated and are telling Time Warner about specifically targeted those gotcha fees and hidden charges, which have all been waived or do not apply. To win your business after the upgrade, the price quoted is the “out the door” price exactly as it will be billed to you, without hidden fees, no term contracts, and no gotchas. You can acknowledge those fees are common among many providers, but they do not apply to you in this case.

Get a glass of water, a pen and paper, and be prepared to spend about 30 minutes total on the phone (most of that will be on hold as they change your account to add the promotion you just won).

Call 1-800-892-4357 and say “cancel service” when the automated system asks what you are calling about. From there, your call will be forwarded to a customer retention call center. The first thing you should ask when connected is the representative’s name and extension (or other identifying information). If your deal isn’t applied (or applied correctly) to your account, the name of the person you spoke with will go a long way to getting any problems straightened out.

timewarner twcYou will be asked why you are canceling service. You want to emphasize “it costs too much” and you have “found a better deal” elsewhere. You should expect the representative to start negotiations by attempting to downgrade your current service to save money. Do not play this game at this point in the call. Politely tell the representative you are not interested in a reduction in your services because you can get the same or better from the competition… at a lower price. Keep reminding them your concern is over the cost of the service, nothing else. Don’t get sidetracked talking about service problems or poor customer service. Address those issues at the end of the call.

Despite assertions Time Warner Cable customers won't endure extended hold times, at least 2/3rds of our recent calls were spent listening to hold music.

Despite assertions Time Warner Cable customers won’t endure extended hold times, at least 2/3rds of our recent calls were spent listening to hold music.

You will be asked to describe the deal from the competitor. Let them know that with recent upgrades in your area it covers all the TV channels you want to watch, has the same broadband speed you are getting now, and offers unlimited local and long distance calling to all the places you care about. Let them know you have already talked to the other company but after a family discussion, you decided to give Time Warner a chance to match or beat their offer and will stay as a customer if they can.

The retention operator will likely try to challenge the competitor’s offer, but each time politely remind them your offer either includes those fees/charges or waives them with no contract obligation and no cancellation penalties. Tell them that competitor is going all out to sign up new customers in your neighborhood.

At all times, be polite, persistent, and persuasive. If you are pleasant, representatives will often go the extra mile for you. Try saying, “is there anything else you can try to get me a better price,” “I really appreciate all of your help today,” and “thank you for looking into this for me.” If things seem to be going against you, remind them, “I know there must be something we can do together to get to a better deal,” “I know you might not be able to do this for me, but perhaps a supervisor could?” and “maybe I am approaching this wrong and we need to start over and try to find the best promotion we can, even if it means adding or changing something that will get me a better deal.”

At this point, the operator will put you on hold and review the promotional offers they can apply to your account. When they return to the line, hear them out but you need them to come within $5-10 of the deal you took to them. If they can’t, you can usually ask if a supervisor will grant you a one time service credit for the difference between the two prices, or to give you a free upgrade to faster Internet speed, a premium movie channel, or something else to sweeten the offer. Try to stay flexible over a few dollars either way. The representative cannot make up a deal, they have to find one in the system that matches your current services and enter the proper code(s) to apply it to your account. Write everything down and repeat it back as you go to make sure you both understand the terms. Also make certain to ask if ANY other fees or charges apply, and if they do, write them down. In most cases, the price you get will be before taxes and some surcharges.

If you find you are dealing with a difficult or intransigent representative, thank them for their time, hang up and call back in a few hours and try again. You never have to commit to a deal immediately. If you want to think about it, ask for the representative to note your account with the offer he or she made and ask their name so you can refer back to that conversation when you call back.

Save your notes. It is unfortunately all too common that the deal you were promised over the phone can look very different on your first bill. But if you kept your notes and the name(s) of representatives you spoke with, any problems can be fixed later with a corrected deal or service credits.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Inside Amy Schumer -- Calling the Cable Company.mp4

Amy Schumer calls Time Warner Cable. It wasn’t this bad for us, we swear! (4:45)

Commerce Secretary Appoints Comcast VP to Advisory Board to Protect Free & Open Internet

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast's David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast’s David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

I got whiplash this afternoon doing a double-take on the improbable announcement that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has seen fit to appoint David Cohen, senior vice president and chief lobbyist at Comcast, to the first-ever Digital Economy Board of Advisors, which counts among its goals protecting a free and open Internet. He will be joined by AT&T’s chief lobbyist, the omnipresent Mr. James Cicconi.

Neither has much patience for Net Neutrality. Cicconi and Cohen have both lobbied Congress and regulators to keep Comcast and AT&T free from regulation and oversight, even as Comcast imposes usage-billing and data caps on a growing number of its customers, while exempting its own streaming video content from those caps. For its part, AT&T is exploring “zero rating” preferred content partners to escape the wrath of its own wireless data limits and advocates against community broadband competition.

The board will be co-chaired by Markle Foundation president Zoe Baird and Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla.

“As we develop an agenda to help the digital economy grow and thrive, it is critical that we engage with those on the front lines of the digital revolution,” said Pritzker.

It apparently doesn’t matter that the front lines being explored are those of the allies and enemies of Net Neutrality. Putting David Cohen on the case to protect a free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to head the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Consumers are, as usual, woefully under-represented on the panel. Only Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports, is likely to solely advocate for ordinary Internet users. The rest of the panel is made up of bankers, businesspeople (including the CEO of a home shopping channel), academia, think tanks and dot.com interests:

David "I'm crushing your unlimited Internet access" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your unlimited Internet access” Cohen

  • Karen Bartleson, president-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
  • Greg Becker, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Bank and SVB Financial Group
  • Austan Goolsbee, Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business
  • Mindy Grossman, CEO and director of HSN
  • Oisin Hanrahan, co-founder and CEO of Handy
  • Sonia Katyal, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law
  • James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute
  • William Ruh, CEO of GE Digital and Chief Digital Officer for GE
  • Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft
  • Corey Thomas, president and CEO of Rapid7
  • Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
  • John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Charter Cable Ponders Joining Comcast Selling Service on Amazon.com (to Scathing Reviews)

amazonCharter Communications is in talks with Amazon.com about joining Comcast to pitch cable service to the online retailer’s giant customer base.

Unlike Comcast, a Charter spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal the company wasn’t necessarily ready to jump in with both feet and was undecided.

One reason for that apparent reluctance may be the scathing reviews Amazon customers are writing about Comcast, which as of today has managed 1.2 out of 5 stars with 452 published reviews. Comcast probably rates even lower because most of the 5-star reviews are purely tongue-in-cheek:

  • 5 Stars for Being Soulless Corporate Demons. Comcast feeds on the weak. In all seriousness, they are awful…. Anything for a profit….
  • Hitler highly recommends Comcast: Adolf Hitler was quoted saying this about Comcast: “Beeindruckend, das ist böse.” Rough translation: “Wow, that’s evil.”
  • Trump Should Send Them To China: Amazing, amazing product that would do very well in China.

The “one star” reviews, which represent more than 95% of the reviews, are decidedly less charitable:

  • Having Comcast has been the worst experience of my life. You are better off with anything else: FiOS, Google Fiber, Carrier Pigeon, anything.
  • I’m getting third world internet service at top dollar prices which go up if I’m stupid enough to remain a customer.
  • Jumping into Comcast is like jumping into a pool, only the pool isn’t filled with water; it’s filled with lies, stress, hate and death.
  • Capitalism at its scummiest.
  • Worst company on planet – Comcast is proof there is NO god…only chaos.
  • False advertising, hidden fees, incompetent customer service…and that’s just for starters!
  • Burn in hell!
  • Investing with Bernie Madoff would be better choice.
  • Dealing with this company is akin to having your fingernails removed with pliers on a regular basis.
  • Worse than that burning feeling when urinating.

But the reviews weren’t all bad.

“The speeds and services in my area are awesome,” wrote Tracey Fobia. “Xfinity is a game changer.”

A quick Google search revealed Mr. Fobia (coincidentally) is employed by Comcast as a facilities supervisor.

amazon comcast

Comcast’s head of its cable division Neil Smit hoped Amazon’s reputation for excellent customer service might rub off on Comcast. To test that premise, Comcast is trying something new only for Amazon customers – delivering something approaching tolerable customer service:

A Comcast spokesman said it has set aside customer call centers in Tucson, Ariz., and Spokane, Wash., employing about 90 representatives trained just to receive inquiries about Comcast sales made through Amazon. The customer representatives’ goal is to “answer your call in 60 seconds or less,” with no waiting, according to Amazon’s landing page.

The Amazon site provides an easy link to help customers know how to “avoid leasing fees” by buying their own compatible modems and Wi-Fi routers. The site also promises that people can cancel Comcast subscriptions within 30 days or select a no-term contract to downgrade or disconnect whenever they wish.

“We’re partnering with a company that’s so good at the customer experience — I think that’s really what excites me,” Smit told the Wall Street Journal.

Amazon receives a commission for each Comcast sale, according to the newspaper, but based on the hostility of the reviews, it isn’t likely Amazon has earned enough to buy anyone lunch.

Tenn. Press Outraged By Charter’s Offer of Free Airtime for Politicians Protecting Cable Monopoly

Rep. Calfee

Rep. Calfee

“The sheer audacity of Charter Communications’ offer of free airtime to legislators following the defeat of a broadband access bill is breathtaking,” wrote the editors of the Knoxville News Sentinel in a heated editorial this week. “The spectacle of lawmakers accepting the offer would be revolting.”

The newspaper was responding to the optics of Charter Communications’ generous offer of free airtime for politicians willing to record “public service announcements” just a day after the Tennessee House Business & Utilities Subcommittee killed a bill that would have allowed public utilities to expand fiber broadband service outside of their current electric service area. If that bill became law, it had the potential of giving Charter the formidable competition AT&T, Frontier Communications, and CenturyLink have failed to deliver in Tennessee.

In an election year, anything that gives politicians exposure to voters is worth its weight in gold, which is why taxpayer-sponsored “newsletters” and “voter updates” fill voters’ mailboxes a few months before Election Day. Charter’s plan to saturate subscribers with dubious “PSAs with Politicians” during ad breaks is harder to ignore than another piece of campaign junk mail destined for the recycle bin.

Rep. Daniel

Rep. Daniel

Charter’s vague explanation it was going to offer the airtime before the Subcommittee vote only makes the scandal worse, because it means lawmakers were given advance notice they could be as well-recognized as Henry “The Fonz” Winkler selling reverse mortgages, circus animals and cheerleaders drumming up business for local car dealerships, and kids night at the local family restaurant — all too common tenants of the “local ad insertion” space cable companies get to make more money (or in this case win/reward influence) on the side.

But Charter’s plan appears to be backfiring, drawing unwanted attention on a cable operator Tennessee loves to hate. But more importantly, it gave the Knoxville press an opportunity to remind voters who the real villains of competition are: Republican Reps. Kent Calfee of Kingston and Martin Daniel of Knoxville — two local lawmakers on the Subcommittee voting with Charter, AT&T, and Comcast against their constituents pleading for more cable competition.

news sentinelThe local hero? Rep. Art Swann (R-Maryville) who voted yes (e-mail him a thank you note). He predicts the bill will be back.

The News Sentinel regards the love affair between Charter and lawmakers as compelling as a lunch date with Limburger cheese:

Actually, the stench emanating from the Capitol would indicate something worse than just bad appearances. Tempting lawmakers with free airtime during an election year — even if the commercial technically would not be a campaign ad — is like waving a treat above the snout of an obedient dog.

Charter has not commented on the matter, but its offer certainly gives at least the appearance of trading airtime for votes; surely legislators know better than to take him up on the offer. Tennesseans must hold lawmakers accountable if they do.

Readers can start by telling Reps. Calfee and Daniel they are watching them very closely on this issue and expect them to support public utility broadband expansion when the issue comes before them next time:

Rep. Kent Calfee
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 219 War Memorial Bldg.
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone: (615) 741-7658
Fax: (615) 253-0163
[email protected]
Rep. Martin Daniel
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 109 War Memorial Bldg.
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone: (615) 741-2287
Fax: (615) 253-0348
[email protected]

Stop the Cap! Joins 21 Other Consumer Groups Asking FCC to Block Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger

charter twc bhOn Monday, Stop the Cap! joined 21 other public interest organizations in sending a joint letter urging the Federal Communications Commission to deny Charter’s bid to take over Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks. Late last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler may be planning to circulate a draft order approving the $90 billion merger.

The Center for Media Justice, CREDO Action, Daily Kos, Demand Progress, Free Press and Presente.org were among the media justice, Internet rights and public interest groups calling on the FCC to reject this deal, which would create a national broadband duopoly.

Together, Charter and Comcast would control nearly two-thirds of the nation’s high-speed broadband subscribers and would offer service to nearly 80 percent of U.S. households. The letter notes that this substantial increase in market power, coupled with Charter’s $66 billion in debt, would give the company both the incentive and the heightened ability to raise prices at will. This would broaden the digital divide, hitting low-income communities the hardest.

Stop the Cap! earlier filed objections to the merger with the FCC and in two states seen as critical to the deal – New York and California. In our view, no cable merger has ever resulted in better service or lower prices for consumers. Such deals deliver handsome sums to executives and shareholders while saddling customers with relentless rate hikes and no improvement in service. Charter’s history is troubling and its ability to meet its financial obligations while saddled in debt is dubious. Charter declared bankruptcy in 2009, after accumulating $21.7 billion in debt accumulated from years of mergers and consolidation efforts. As credit markets tightened up, Charter’s ability to manage its debt fell apart. Now the company is back to its old modus operandi, piling up debt buying Time Warner Cable — a much larger operation, and trying to combine it with Bright House Networks, another cable operator prominent in Florida.

Earlier this year, several of the signers delivered petitions to the FCC from more than 300,000 Americans opposing the merger, and thousands have called the agency in recent days to weigh in against the deal. Political leaders including Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid have spoken out about the merger’s many harms.

“Too many Washington insiders have given up on challenging this deal despite its serious harms,” said Free Press policy director Matt Wood. “Instead of forecasting its chances for approval, the groups signing this letter will keep fighting to block this merger, along with the guaranteed price increases it would foist on people and communities who can least afford it.

“If Charter gets this merger approved, nothing will stop it from raising its rates for high-speed broadband and video customers who have nowhere else to turn. Temporary promises and weak conditions aren’t going to preserve competition and choice in the long run, and they’re not going to do anything to stop these price hikes. The FCC is charged with promoting the public interest, and there’s no way in which this merger benefits the public. Higher prices and fewer choices won’t help anyone but the companies pitching this bad bargain.”

“If its takeover of Time Warner Cable goes through, Charter will have a broadband footprint as big as Comcast’s,” said Demand Progress executive director David Segal. “This would turn an industry that’s already too concentrated into a duopoly, paving the way for higher rates today and the eventual formation of a new cross-sector behemoth that controls content production and delivery.

“Americans increasingly understand that corporate concentration is jacking up prices and lowering quality for all sorts of basic goods and services. At a hearing of a Senate antitrust subcommittee this month, lawmakers made it clear that they see companies that are allegedly too big to fix in many industries, not just the banking sector. This FCC must now decide whether it wants to stem the swelling tide of concentration, or enable these monopolies.”

Free Press and Stop the Cap! contributed elements of this story.

Usage Caps/Metered Billing Has a New Name: the Usage Economy

Phillip Dampier March 9, 2016 Editorial & Site News, Internet Overcharging 1 Comment

LogiSenseWhen reviewing your latest Comcast cable bill with overlimit fees on it (or a $30-35 upcharge to buy their insurance plan to keep extra fees off your bill), did you realize you are part of the Usage Economy?

With some Internet Service Providers and most wireless companies rushing to monetize your Internet usage (while also jacking up the price of service), a cottage industry of software and engineering “solutions”-developers have emerged to grab a piece of Monetize Pie.

This week LogiSense Corporation celebrated itself for another deployment of its EngageIP usage and rating platform. Granted, many of its customers are using it for business class services, but we enjoyed the word salad LogiSense created about the future of usage monetizing schemes that too often effectively gouge customers:

LogiSense enables enterprises to power the Usage Economy: The dynamic convergence of subscription- and usage-based billing models, allowing service providers to monetize in real-time any triggered event in the connected world to gain significant competitive advantages. Today’s usage economy is a highly complex environment with a matrixed ecosystem of consumers and providers generating transactions that require metering, measurement and monetization. EngageIP’s real-time rating, charging, billing and customer care capabilities enable providers to monetize any subscription, over any medium and from any provider. The system transforms clients’ business practices by empowering rapid turn up of new services, enabling innovation and new revenue streams thus ensuring longevity and relevance in a rapidly evolving market.

FairPoint’s ‘Moosepoop’: Abdicating Its Responsibilities One Customer at a Time

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint's deregulation logic "moosepoop."

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint’s deregulation logic “moosepoop.”

In 2007, Verizon Communications announced it was selling its landline telephone network in Northern New England to FairPoint Communications, a North Carolina-based independent telephone company. Now, nearly a decade (and one bankruptcy) later, FairPoint wants to back out of its commitments.

In 2015, FairPoint stepped up its push for deregulation, writing its own draft legislative bills that would gradually end its obligation to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” which guarantees phone service to any customer that wants it.

The company’s lobbyists produced the self-written LD 1302, introduced last year in Maine with the ironic name: “An Act To Increase Competition and Ensure a Robust Information and Telecommunications Market.” The bill is a gift to FairPoint, allowing it to abdicate responsibilities telephone companies have adhered to for over 100 years:

  • The bill removes the requirement that FairPoint maintain uninterrupted voice service during a power failure, either through battery backup or electric current;
  • Guarantees FairPoint not be required to offer provider of last resort service without its express consent, eliminating Universal Service requirements;
  • Eliminates a requirement FairPoint offer service in any area where another provider also claims coverage of at least 94% of households;
  • Eventually forbids the Public Utilities Commission from requiring contributions to the state Universal Service Fund and forbids the PUC from spending that money to subsidize rural telephone rates.

opinionSuch legislation strips consumers of any assumption they can get affordable, high quality landline service and would allow FairPoint to mothball significant segments of its network (and the customers that depend on it), telling the disconnected to use a cell phone provider instead.

FairPoint claims this is necessary to establish a more level playing ground to compete with other telecom service providers that do not have legacy obligations to fulfill. But that attitude represents “race to the bottom” thinking from a company that fully understood the implications of buying Verizon’s landline networks in a region where some customers were already dropping basic service in favor of their cell phones.

FairPoint apparently still saw value spending $2.4 billion on a network it now seems ready to partly abandon or dismantle. We suspect the “value” FairPoint saw was a comfortable duopoly in urban areas, a monopoly in most rural ones. When it botched the conversion from Verizon to itself, customers fled to the competition, dimming its prospects. The company soon declared bankruptcy reorganization, emerged from it, and is now seeking a legislative/regulatory bailout too. Regulators should say no.

fairpointLast week, even FairPoint’s CEO Paul Sunu appeared to undercut his company’s own arguments for the need of such legislation, just as the company renewed its efforts in Portland to get a new 2016 version of the deregulation bill through the Maine legislature.

“We’ve operated in and we have experience operating basically in duopolies for a long time,” Sunu told investors in last week’s quarterly results conference call. “Cable is a formidable competitor. Look, they offer a nice package and a bundle and they – in certain areas, they certainly have a speed advantage. So we recognize that and so our marketing team does a really good job of making sure that our packages are competitive and we can counter punch on a both aggregate and deconstructive pricing.”

“Our aim is not to be a low cost, per se,” Sununu added. “What we want to do is to make sure that people stay with us because we can provide a better service and a better experience and that’s really what we aim to do. And as a result, we think that we will be able to change the perception that people have of Fairpoint and our brand and be able to keep our customers with us longer.”

Paul H. Sunu

Paul H. Sunu

Of course customers may not have the option to stay if FairPoint gets its deregulation agenda through and are later left unilaterally disconnected. In fact, while Sunu argues FairPoint’s biggest marketing plus is that it can provide better service, its agenda seems to represent the opposite. AARP representatives argued seniors want and need reliable and affordable landline service. FairPoint’s proposal would eliminate assurances that such phone lines will still be there and work even when the power goes out.

At least this year, customers know if they are being targeted. FairPoint is proposing to immediately remove from “provider of last resort service” coverage in Maine from Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Sanford, Brunswick, Scarborough, Saco, Augusta, Westbrook, Windham, Gorham, Waterville, Kennebunk, Standish, Kittery, Brewer, Cape Elizabeth, Old Orchard Beach, Yarmouth, Bath, Freeport and Belfast.

At least 10,000 customers could be affected almost immediately if the bill passes. Customers in those areas would not lose service under the plan, but prices would no longer be set by state regulators and the company could deny new connection requests.

FairPoint argues that customers disappointed by the effects of deregulation can simply switch providers.

fairpoint failure“The market determines the service quality criteria of importance to customers and the service quality levels they find acceptable,” Sarah Davis, the company’s senior director of government affairs, wrote. “To the extent service quality is deficient from the perspective of consumers, the competitive marketplace imposes its own serious penalties.”

Except FairPoint’s own CEO recognizes that marketplace is usually a duopoly, limiting customer options and the penalties to FairPoint.

Those customers still allowed to stay customers may or may not get good service from FairPoint. Another company proposal would make it hard to measure reliability by limiting the authority of state regulators to track and oversee service complaints.

Company critic and customer Mike Kiernan calls FairPoint’s legislative push “moosepoop.”

“FairPoint has been, from the outset, well aware of the issues here in New England, since they had to demonstrate that they were capable of coping with the conditions – market and otherwise – in their takeover bid from Verizon,” Kiernan writes. “Yet now we see where they are crying poverty (a poverty that they brought on themselves) by taking on the state concession that they are trying desperately to get out from under, and as soon as possible.”

Vermont Public Radio reports FairPoint wants to get rid of service quality obligations it has consistently failed to meet as part of a broad push for deregulation. (2:23)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Kiernan argues FairPoint should be replaced with a solution New Englanders have been familiar with for over 200 years – a public co-op. He points to Eastern Maine Electrical Co-Op as an example of a publicly owned utility that works for its customers, not as a “corporate cheerleader.”

Despite lobbying efforts that suggest FairPoint is unnecessarily burdened by the requirements it inherited when it bought Verizon’s operations, FairPoint reported a net profit of $90 million dollars in fiscal 2015.

Charter’s Fairy Tales: Please Approve Our Deal and Trees Will Spontaneously Blossom

You've been flee¢ed

You’ve been flee¢ed

It’s time for some more Big Cable Fairy Tales, brought to you by the well-paid lawyers, lobbyists, and lackey sock puppets paid to tell regulators life is only worth living when you approve a colossal merger.

Kids, gather round for tonight’s prescient story of vague promises and non-committal commitments.

Once upon a time in the forest there was a big, bad old Mr. Wolf (better known to his friends as TWC) that had a nasty habit occupying a nearby bridge to grandmother’s house and charged humongous fees to cross it. One of his best customers was Little Red Riding Hood, who depended on the no longer state of the art bridge to cut her travel time to grandmother’s house by 75%. Every trip proved an aggravation for our Red. It was costly, closed to traffic far more often than it should, and was policed by that pesky wolf and his “take it or leave it” attitude.

One Sunday in January, an angry crowd had gathered, reading a notice tacked to a nearby tree. In small print, it was titled, “Toll Reconsideration Notification.”

The notice explained increased bridge beautification and maintenance expenses necessitated an annual toll adjustment. But no worries, it would amount to about the cost of one jar of jam in Red’s basket.

“If you bought it at Whole Foods,” muttered Hood to your eminent narrator.

(Last year’s toll hike was “less than a box of cookies,” the year before that was “a tin of tea.” Three years ago it was the cost of Red’s basket. Next year, we think she would do better just handing over her purse.)

This year one trip across the bridge would cost $7.50. If you bought a wolf-approved, bundled picnic basket at the gift store while on your journey, it would drop that toll to $6. The wolf told complainers that was evidence most would never have to pay that new price, so the toll hike was minimal. But the people remained suspicious. (There were stories this wolf also had a tendency to occasionally feast on customers when nobody was looking, but his lawyers denied it.)

Despite the bridge toll inflation and John Walsh looking for missing travelers, our Red knew if she wanted to get to grandmother’s house this week, she had to use the bridge, nefarious wolf or not. The only other bridge – run by old man Frank Bison, fell into the river last winter and he doesn’t think it is worth spending a lot of money to build a new one. Despite offers to take customers across in his leaky canoe, most decide to pass.

Mr. Bison

Mr. Bison

Mr. Wolf made a handsome profit every quarter charging tolls to travelers. This fact did not escape the attention of the head of the Sheep Consortium in the next valley over. For years, the Consortium felt under-appreciated. Their adventures were rarely told, because few people cared. The wolf had a better story, and anyway it was hard to respect the sheep after they overspent on their watchdog operation and bankrupted themselves for a time.

“That was so yesterday,” defended Dr. Flee¢e, the head of the Consortium. “This is a new sunny day.”

Or so he claimed. Out of view, Flee¢e paced a nearby paddock night after night, unable to sleep knowing that damn wolf got all the attention and a heckuva lot more toll revenue than he was getting.

So one night, Dr. Flee¢e and his friends paid $10 million dollars to the Magic Sparkle Pony grazing down by the investment bank to find a win-win solution for both the sheep and the wolf (but mostly the sheep, shhh.) The pony looked up, tilted his head briefly, and said just one word: SYNERGY. A cacophony of gratitude rose from the valley and gosh darn it, exclaimed Dr. Flee¢e, wouldn’t you know the silly pony had the answer? A merger! The wolf’s costs would drop, the sheep would finally be able to tap into a big piece of that toll operation, and only by working together would Little Red Riding Hood get the benefits of their new relationship:big sheep

  1. The ratty old bridge would be fully painted.
  2. The wolf promised to go vegetarian for up to three years.
  3. Little Red Riding Hood would be given a new basket (imported from Laos).

“Hey, wait a minute,” asked one of the sheep. “Didn’t the Three Little Pigs try this last year? They had more money than we do and some of them were turned into bacon after that surprising storm blew their house down.”

“But don’t you see the Magic Sparkle Pony solved that for us too?” responded another. “All we have to say is we’re not pigs and that counts for something. Besides, who doesn’t love sheep? This is going to work out fine.”

But there were still problems, especially with Ms. Hood and her fellow travelers.

It seems the Consortium didn’t promise Ms. Hood or anyone else would pay less on those trips to see grandma. They only promised the journey would be prettier and less confusing. Gone was the $7.50 toll, replaced with the all-new Flee¢ePa$$™ offering trips across the bridge bundled with: a 24/7 travel hotline, travel advice, books on travel, songs about travel, a coffee mug with a picture of Dr. Flee¢e traveling to his castle in Scotland, and the aforementioned Laotian wicker basket to cram it all into, for just $50 a month.

“Is this one of those Dr. Seuss tales that you have to be on something to appreciate?” asked Red. “I don’t drink coffee, nobody reads books anymore, and if I need travel advice I’ll ask someone I know. I don’t need all those things so why do I have to pay $50 instead of $5? Wait, who is paying for that castle?”

“Because it’s simpler, don’t you see,” said Dr. Flee¢e, eavesdropping in the corner. “We are going to be a different kind of bridge operator committed to creating jobs, offering the most innovative products and preserving this bridge.”

“For $50 a month,” coolly replied an exasperated Ms. Hood. “Stephen King wrote this, didn’t he? I have a better idea. We’re moving grandma to Chattanooga. They have high-speed rail.”

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