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Want the Best Deal from Charter/Spectrum? Cancel Your Service for a Few Days and Wait

Former Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers, listen up. A veteran Charter Communications customer who cut cable’s cord for good a few months ago reports Charter’s hard-line on extending retention deals to customers threatening to leave lasts only until you turn in your equipment and cancel your service.

DSL Reports reader mmainprize from Houghton Lake, Mich. wrote he dumped his $180/mo Charter Gold TV with Phone package for good after realizing just how much Charter was gouging him for service.

“I just went through my bills, and remember when internet was only $49 in mid-2015 before increasing to $52 in late 2015,” he writes. “So at the now current price of $65 you can see just how much it has gone up.”

When he called to tell them he was canceling service, they briefly tried to keep him as a customer by cutting back on his cable package for a lower price.

“Double play, Flex pack, you pick 20 channels, etc. At first the offer was internet and basic cable for $90 a month, then $74 a month for internet and “limited basic” (an unadvertised package of local channels, public access, educational and government channels, plus home shopping). I canceled all but internet.”

Within days the phone calls and letters started coming advertising discounts Charter wouldn’t dream of offering when he was still a TV customer.

“I get a call every day now (it is harassment) offering the same prices or lower than what I was offered when canceling,” he writes.

The first offer is $80 for a double play package of TV and internet service. But if you turn them down, they eventually pitch a triple play offer of $89 a month with TV, phone, and internet with free HD and DVD service (equipment extra).

The enticing offer on their website, promoting $29 a month for internet, $29 for TV, and $29 for phone service is available only to new customers. Existing Charter, Bright House, and Time Warner Cable customers cannot get those prices. You must pay more.

Those canceling service qualify as a new customer after a 30 day timeout period. Or skip that and sign up as a new customer under the name of another household member. If you are married, your spouse’s maiden name will suffice.

One thing is certain. Charter’s takeover of Time Warner Cable and Bright House is very unlikely to save most customers any money. Almost 90% of Time Warner Cable customers received discounts from a bundled service package or a retention deal. When those packages expire, your bill will skyrocket. This is exactly what Stop the Cap! told regulators in our opposition to the merger. Since 2008, we have shared one sage piece of advice with readers:

When a cable company comes calling promising you a great new deal, watch your wallet and run!

“50 Shades of Grey” Community Broadband Ban Bill Ties the Hands of Missouri Communities

Emery

It’s 2017 and a lot of Missouri residents are still tortured by the lack of access to basic broadband service, and if a community broadband ban bill becomes state law it will remain that way for years to come.

SB 186 is essentially a copy of last year’s community broadband ban that eventually died in the legislature. Just like last year, many of the sponsors and promoters of the latest attempt to impose a municipal broadband ban have close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and receive copious amounts of money from Missouri’s largest telecom companies. Some even win awards from the state’s biggest telecom lobbyists.

State Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) loves the headlines he attracts from throwing ideological bombs into the public debate (he called homosexuality a mental illness, compared public education to slavery and a pathway to prison, and questioned whether former president Barack Obama was actually an American citizen). But he is not in touch with the rural residents in his state who have had their pleas for broadband service ignored by AT&T and other telecom companies for years.

Emery is a big fan of ALEC and serves as a Missouri state chairman. In 2015 he told an audience at an ALEC event he found the group’s efforts inspiring and helpful. ALEC acts as a giant clearinghouse for corporate-inspired legislation that ends up in the hands of friendly state legislators. ALEC’s model bills, including one banning municipal broadband, win passage in part because state legislatures do not get the kind of media attention and public scrutiny seen in Washington. SB 186, its predecessor, and other similar bills introduced in other states are frequently ghostwritten by telecom company lawyers and lobbyists and are designed to stop municipal broadband networks before they can get started.

Emery’s current bill is designed to apply a “scorched earth” response to communities trying to find ways to get rural broadband service up and running after a decade of being ignored by private telecom companies. It’s corporate protectionism and welfare at its finest, with a thicket of language that would force public providers into price and speed regulation. Emery’s bill would interfere with the types of loan agreements communities could contemplate to provide the service, and the language required for a mandatory referendum is heavily slanted to suggest such service is redundant and unnecessary. Emery’s bill also offers assurances his business friends could get gigabit speeds from community-owned providers, but not necessarily consumers.

Like the failed broadband hit bill introduced in Virginia, SB 186 is an ironic piece of legislation, heavy-handed with regulation and micromanagement and anchored with bureaucratic requirements designed to guarantee disappointment and costly failure. Emery’s career in public life has been spent railing against costly and unnecessary overregulation, yet his bill exemplifies both in action.

SB 186 also protects the status quo for broadband in Missouri, which is dreadful outside of major cities. It would assure incumbent telecom companies won’t face any service-improving competition and keep municipalities off their turf. For example, Columbia Water and Light has a “dark fiber” institutional fiber network at its disposal that is woefully underutilized. In addition to helping provide some connectivity for local government functions, the city-owned network also leases connections to hospitals and other public buildings, as well as some businesses. But the utility does not sell internet service itself.

The city believes much of the fiber network’s capacity is sitting un-utilized and could prove a valuable asset to the local connectivity economy. With the fiber already in place, expanding the network could be a cost-effective/common sense way to reach city residents that want better internet service than what incumbents are offering, and the city is more than willing to open the network up to those incumbents as well. SB 186 could eliminate that option in Missouri, just to protect the same private companies that have delivered underwhelming service for years.

In cities like Centralia, now exploring enhanced smart grid technology to improve the area’s electricity infrastructure, SB 186 would make the upgrade much more costly. Smart grid technology relies on fiber optic technology, often laid deep into neighborhoods and office parks. Only a tiny portion of that capacity is used to monitor utility infrastructure. The rest of the bandwidth on the fiber optic cable — already in place, could easily offer gigabit broadband service to every resident and business, especially if the city wires fiber to or near individual utility meters. That wouldn’t be allowed under SB 186 either, so communities like Centralia could not recoup some of the cost of the fiber optic technology by selling broadband service. That’s great news for companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Charter Communications. It’s also a relief for the phone companies who need not invest in their networks to offer something better than 20th century DSL.

Rural America: not a broadband-a-plenty

Emery offers two contradictory defenses for his bill:

  1. It is necessary to protect taxpayers from municipal broadband which Emery calls “unsuccessful, leaving ratepayers to cover debt costs.” But when asked by local media for any examples of a Missouri public broadband project that has failed, he could not.
  2. “We need more private-sector opportunities and not drive them out or hinder offerings coming into a community.”

In other words, Emery believes all public broadband networks are failures -and- they represent a major threat to private telecom companies that will be discouraged from investing in broadband expansion because a publicly owned competitor could be ready to “drive them out.”

Of course, neither is true. In rural Missouri there is no line of eager telecom companies seeking to expand broadband service into unprofitable rural communities and where only one broadband provider exists, there is no pressure to improve service quality or speed. In the first instance, there is no investment by private companies to discourage and in the second, the presence of a new provider encourages upgrades and investment. It’s a concept called “competition.” Sen. Emery would have a difficult time providing the name(s) of telecom companies that exited a community because of the presence of a municipal broadband alternative.

Rural farms are among the least likely places to get adequate internet service.

Sen. Emery’s family has a feed and grain business background, and those businesses (as well as Missouri’s farmers) are among the hardest hit economically by the lack of suitable broadband. But Emery is now far away from the business his father and grandfather ran. These days, he harvests big dollar contributions from some of the country’s largest corporations and much of his last campaign was financed by just two families — one with a vendetta against unions and the other — Rex Sinquefield — bucking to be Missouri’s own version of the Koch Brothers, who has his own private agenda he’d like enacted into law. Sinquefield has close ties to the Grow Missouri PAC, that also has close ties to the Club for Growth, ALEC, and the Koch Brothers’ backed Americans for Prosperity. Birds of a feather flock together.

Missouri’s biggest telecom companies are also generous contributors to Sen. Emery, which isn’t a surprise considering his bill and voting record directly benefits their businesses in the state. That may explain why the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association — the state’s top cable lobbying group — gave Emery its Legislator of the Year award. Not to be outdone, the phone companies’ Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association gave Emery its own Leadership Award. Anyone who can introduce a bill that eliminates the best prospect of competition in suburban and rural Missouri for years is probably worthy of both.

In return for favors like that, some familiar names appear at the top of Emery’s list of campaign contributors:

  • AT&T ($6,000)
  • Comcast ($4,000)
  • Verizon Communications ($4,000)
  • CenturyLink ($3,500)
  • Charter ($2,000)
  • Time Warner Cable ($1,500)
  • Charter Communications ($1,325)
  • Sprint ($1,000)

Emery clearly listens to their interests more than average Missouri consumers still searching for broadband service.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last summer that there are significant gaps in broadband coverage even in St. Louis County, where one million residents live. “Fringe suburban spots” too costly to meet Return On Investment requirements guarantee no service, indefinitely. In St. Clair County, 5,000 homes are without broadband for the same reason. In large parts of the state, what constitutes broadband no longer meets that definition — 25Mbps, as established by the FCC. Every telephone ratepayer pays a “universal service fee” on their phone bill, in part to extend broadband into rural areas. But that extension has been spotty because not every phone company accepts the money and the conditions that come with it to broaden their reach. That leaves many rural Missourians with <1Mbps DSL service. That’s the case in Wildwood, where streaming media is out of the question because internet speeds are too low.

The Broadband Berlin Wall: Wildwood, Mo. — Broadband service is easily available to the east of Highway 109. But to the west, service is spotty to non-existent.

Wildwood — in western St. Louis County, is living in “Third World conditions,” even though “we’re not in rural Timbuktu,” according to resident Marilyn Gilbert. It’s also comparable to Cold War-era Berlin, except in reverse. Eastern Wildwood offers residents broadband options from both Charter and AT&T. But the Broadband Berlin Wall dividing the community — Highway 109, separates the broadband haves’ from the have-nots’. The larger part of Wildwood to the west, now growing with new housing and businesses, is a broadband swamp with few, if any choices for local residents.

Gilbert “enjoys” AT&T DSL and speeds that never come close to 1Mbps. It is her only option.

“I tried to download my Windows update and it timed out,” she said. “The amount of time you waste waiting for things to open up or download!”

Remember, this is in St. Louis County, the old home for the headquarters of Charter Communications, which dominates the city of St. Louis.

Despite earning billions every year from the broadband business, Charter has refused to extend its lines of service into the western half of Wildwood, despite efforts to attract the company that date back six years. Residents report broadband availability is among their top concerns taken to local officials, who have in turn sought help from Charter, AT&T, and the state legislature.

The city of Wildwood’s efforts were met with a demand by Charter to pay the cable company $3 million in taxpayer funds to extend service. The city said no.

“The comment we hear constantly is that kids need high-speed (internet) in order to access their school work,” said Wildwood councilman Larry McGowen. “These days, internet is just like another utility. It has become every bit as important in people’s lives as electricity.”

But it apparently is not important enough to allow Wildwood and other communities the option of constructing their own local broadband solutions for residents if Emery’s bill becomes law.

Ironically, the same companies that refuse to extend their service into rural Missouri are also vehemently opposed to letting local governments do it in their absence.

The stalemate has caused some residents to sell their homes and move, just to get internet access. David Norell left town because he couldn’t survive with satellite internet service, which costs $80 a month and offers spotty service with a low data allowance.

That makes Emery’s bill, and others like it, a travesty. Banning local communities from doing the job large for-profit companies won’t seems nothing short of corporate protectionism. After all, as critics of Emery’s bill charge, how can a local government unfairly compete with a company that doesn’t compete at all? Also of concern is the fact those residents that do get token DSL service from AT&T may be trapped using it forever if Emery’s bill keeps better and faster service from co-ops and other public broadband options off the table.

If it seems like Sen. Emery is putting the interests of big telecom companies – many dues-paying members of ALEC – above those of his constituents, perhaps he is. Consider the fact Emery is a state chairman at ALEC, an organization that included this loyalty pledge in its draft state chair agreement:

I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization (ALEC) first.

Emery has taken heat for his ongoing love affair with ALEC before, including an ethics complaint about a $3,000 meal at the Dallas Chop House where Emery ate. ALEC’s corporate members picked up the tab. That kind of unethical conflict of interest, along with the aforementioned loyalty pledge, infuriated the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Mr. Emery and his ilk can believe what they want, but they should play no part in allowing corporations to hide their agendas, and their lobbying expenses, by pretending to be something they are not. The proof is in ALEC’s actions, which as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank outlined, hid itself behind closed doors in a meeting last week in the nation’s capital, pushing reporters away while claiming they had nothing to hide.

No, ALEC exists solely to hide. To hide money. To hide agendas. To hide its hijacking of democracy.

Lawmakers who care about the constitution and their commitment to voters should be fleeing faster than the corporations who realize ALEC is simply a bad investment.

Emery at a 2015 ALEC event.

It was not an isolated incident. Ed and his wife Rebecca Emery also enjoyed a $141.10 meal paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Association. It’s safe to assume nobody had just a small salad. Other meals and drinks were courtesy of AT&T and CenturyLink. (Peabody Energy footed the bill for the Emerys’ taxi rides back and forth.)

When the wining and dining ended, the lobbyists were back with campaign contribution checks in hand.

These kinds of municipal broadband bans are toxic to economic development for rural communities that already face built-in economic and infrastructure disadvantages. The 21st century digital knowledge economy has the potential to make rural America equally competitive, assuming there is adequate infrastructure in place to participate.

Relying on private investment alone can work in urban areas where broadband profits are easy because the essential infrastructure to provide the service was constructed and paid for decades ago, originally to deliver telephone and television service. Rural areas suffer from deteriorated wireline infrastructure some phone companies want to abandon altogether and no cable broadband service at all.

Charter and AT&T first answer to shareholders. Local governments answer to their residents. Legislators are supposed to do the same. For Mr. Emery, loyalty to the interests of ALEC and the state’s telecommunications companies seems clear. It’s too bad his bill suggests a lot less loyalty to the voters in his district that need internet access or better broadband are will assuredly not get it if this bill ever becomes state law.

Sprint a Pawn in Masayoshi Son’s U.S. Investment Scheme

President Trump met with Softbank’s Masayoshi Son in December, 2016.

Japan’s Softbank has a deal tailor-made for President Donald Trump’s desire to inspire companies to invest more in the United States and hire more workers, and all the president has to do is get Washington regulators concerned with mergers, acquisitions, and competition out of Softbank’s way.

Softbank’s Masayoshi Son has delivered a lot of speeches and made a lot of promises since acquiring Sprint in 2013 for $21.6 billion, originally promising to rebuild the struggling wireless company into a potential competitive juggernaut, capable of beating Verizon and AT&T and even take on cable operators. Now he’s offering to invest another $50 billion in the U.S., and create 50,000 new jobs, assuming the business climate is right.

Before accepting such a deal, one should take a closer look at how Sprint is doing three years under Softbank’s ownership. Few would argue with the fact Sprint has languished and fallen to last place among the four national carriers, now behind T-Mobile. Despite Son’s commitment to Donald Trump to invest and hire, Sprint has severely cut investment by more than 60% between 2014 and 2016 and has laid off more than 4,000 employees, most in the United States. Customers continue to complain about the perpetual ‘massive upgrade’ undertaking the company embarked on years ago that never seems to be finished and hasn’t helped service quality as much as customers expected.

In January 2016, BusinessWeek reported SoftBank has “plowed more than $22 billion into Sprint, and yet all of Sprint is now valued at $11.8 billion. The company’s $2.2 billion in cash is about the same as its 2016 debt obligations.”

Ten years earlier, Sprint was worth $69 billion and was prepared to dominate the U.S. wireless industry, but drove customers off with very poor customer service and inadequate investment in its network, allowing competitors like AT&T and Verizon Wireless to leap ahead. Sprint also embarked on an executive-inspired fantasy: a disastrous merger with Nextel that preoccupied the company for years. Softbank taking the lead has done little to change customer perceptions, nor those of some Wall Street analysts who fear Sprint is a bottomless money pit that always promises better times and profits are coming, but never seems to get there.

“You’ve watched a once-great institution deteriorate to the point that it is now a badly, badly compromised asset,” said Craig Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “They’ve been living from hand-to-mouth for years, constantly making short-term decisions in order to live to fight another day.”

It calls into question Softbank’s vision to use technology “to reduce loneliness and ease the sadness of people as much as possible.” There are a lot of sad Sprint customers, churning away into the arms of competitors like T-Mobile faster than Sprint can sign new customers up.

Son’s dream depended on his business plan that reduced the number of U.S. competitors to three by merging Sprint and T-Mobile together, something federal regulators under the Obama Administration failed to accept despite Son’s argument the combined resources of the two companies would theoretically make a super-sized Sprint more competitive with AT&T and Verizon.

In contrast to Son’s plan to consolidate the wireless industry to improve Sprint’s financial health, T-Mobile instead decided to boost investments in network upgrades and improved coverage to attract new customers. Ironically, some of the money to pay for those upgrades came from AT&T after it paid a reverse breakup fee of $3 billion in cash and $1–3 billion in wireless spectrum after its merger proposal with T-Mobile collapsed.

While Son promises he will invest billions in the United States, he is already spending much less on Sprint. In 2017, Verizon planned to spend $9.12 per subscriber (adjusted spending per monthly phone-equivalent subscriber), AT&T will spend $9.67 and T-Mobile will spend $9.04. Sprint will lag behind with $6.78 per subscriber in network investments. Moffett predicted of the $22 billion Verizon has committed for capital spending this year, about $11.3 billion will go toward wireless. By contrast, Sprint will spend $2.97 billion, excluding costs of leased phones. T-Mobile is spending just over $5 billion.

In the last two years, customers have delivered a new paradigm to wireless companies: bigger isn’t necessarily better. The only bright spot among all four national carriers in 2016 was the scrappy T-Mobile, once destined for a fire sale by owner Deutsche Telekom. But under the “Uncarrier” leadership of CEO John Legere, T-Mobile USA is worth pure gold in Deutsche Telekom’s global wireless portfolio. The turnaround came not from trying to consolidate the industry but rather giving customers what they have asked for — more data, unlimited data, better deals, and better service. T-Mobile’s network investments paid off, giving the company very competitive 4G LTE speeds and comparable urban and suburban coverage to its larger competitors. Legere has been so successful, the German owners of T-Mobile no longer seem to be interested in selling T-Mobile USA.

Softbank’s record of achievement with Sprint in the last two years has been much less of a success story.

Customer Gains and Losses by Carrier – 2016-Q4 Phone Activators

Investments by Sprint in its wireless network have plummeted 62.7% under the leadership of Softbank from 2014-2016. (Chart: Hal Singer)

In 2015, Sprint’s capex was $3.958 billion. Last year, it was $1.421 billion — less than half the previous year. Mr. Son seems reticent about maintaining the kind of investment necessary to grow Sprint’s network over the long term to keep up with customer demand, instead willing to compete short term on price and promotions. Sprint’s past reputation for poor customer service, a slow data network, dropped calls, and coverage dead zones makes attracting former customers back to Sprint a hard sell, especially considering T-Mobile exists as a credible alternative to Sprint for those seeking cheaper service plans.

Son’s argument to the new administration depends on President Trump and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai being more friendly to the idea of less competition than the Obama Administration. Son may have an uphill battle, considering the former Obama Administration’s opposition to earlier mergers, including T-Mobile and AT&T and T-Mobile and Sprint seems to have paid off for consumers in the form of today’s fiercer competition and a price war.

Convincing President Trump to loosen merger standards to allow Softbank a stronger position in the U.S. market in return for vague and illusory investment and job creation promises is ridiculous considering Mr. Son’s performance with Sprint has not been as rosy as his rhetoric. No president should agree to a de facto bailout deal for Softbank that reduces competition and guarantees higher prices. Mr. Son should instead direct some of the $50 billion he apparently has stashed in waiting to improve Sprint’s network to more effectively compete. If he cannot or will not, the entire country should not pay for his investment mistake by watching more wireless competition get eliminated in yet another merger.

YouTube TV An Epic Fail Before It Even Launches: Bad Value, Ad-Littered DVR

Google’s forthcoming online TV streaming service will cost too much for too little and includes a cloud-based DVR that will replace many of your recordings with unskippable-ad-laced alternatives.

YouTube TV was previewed for reporters Tuesday, despite the fact it won’t debut until late spring or early summer, with a lineup of 40 channels for $35 a month. The “skinny bundle” from Google has managed to put together a very incomplete lineup of major cable networks and for most of the country, on-demand-only access of network shows about a day after they air.

YouTube TV Tentative Lineup

  • Disney: ABC, ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN31, ESPNU, ESPNews, SEC Network, Disney Channel, Disney Junior, Disney XD, Freeform
  • NBCUniversal: NBC, Telemundo, Bravo, Chiller, CNBC, E!, Golf Channel, MSNBC, NBC Universo2, NBCSN, Oxygen, Sprout, SyFy, Universal HD, USA. In some regions: Comcast Regional Sports Networks, NECN (New England Cable News)
  • CBS: CBS, The CW, CBS Sports Network
  • Fox: FOX, FS1 (Fox Sports 1), FS2 (Fox Sports 2), BTN (Big Ten Network), FX, FXX, FXM, Nat Geo, Nat Geo Wild, Fox News, Fox Business. In some regions: Fox Regional Sports Networks
  • The Weather Channel: Local Now (rolling weather forecasts)
  • YouTube TV members can also add Showtime for $11 a month and Fox Soccer Plus for $15 a month.
  • Availability of local TV/live network streaming limited to residents of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Prospective customers will have to tough it out with no access to AMC, HBO, MTV, Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, MTV/VH1, CNN, Cartoon Network, Discovery, TBS, TNT, PBS, Food Network, and HGTV among many other missing networks.

One potentially interesting feature – an unlimited cloud-based DVR service, is rendered almost unusable with the imposition of prioritized video-on-demand. In short, this means that once a video-on-demand version of the show you recorded on your DVR becomes available, you can no longer access your recording. Your only option is to watch the ad-heavy, on-demand version with advertising you cannot skip. In most cases, that will give customers about 12-24 hours to watch their DVR recordings before they become inaccessible, at least until the on-demand version is removed.

Wojcicki

That’s a challenging proposition when consumers have other choices including AT&T’s DirecTV Now, Sling TV, and PlayStation Vue. The premise of YouTube TV, like many others, is to appeal to cord cutters and cable-nevers — especially millennials.

“There’s no question millennials love great TV content,” said YouTube chief executive Susan Wojcicki. “But what we’ve seen is they don’t want to watch it in the traditional setting.”

What Wojcicki ignores is the fact millennials prefer to watch their shows on-demand. Relying on live television as the primary source of scripted television shows is already inconvenient and unnecessary. The viewing experience is increasingly an individual one, catering to the whims of a single viewer watching on a tablet, smartphone, or connected TV. Of all the websites on the internet, YouTube should already understand the trend towards individualized viewing better than most.

Just as important, YouTube TV is a lousy deal. Hulu subscribers can binge watch all the series they want with no ads for $11.99 a month. YouTube TV will charge nearly three times the price and force customers to sit through up to 18 minutes of ads an hour. Hulu doesn’t require customers to use Google’s Chromecast as the only stream-to-TV option either. A premium YouTube Red subscription also won’t get you a better deal or fewer ads. You may already pay to watch YouTube commercial free but now you will pay more to watch YouTube TV filled with ads.

Analyst Michael Nathanson said Google’s real goal here is to get into the television advertising market. Because customers will be held captive by a disabled fast-forward button, they will see Google-targeted ads playing in ad slots normally reserved for use by local cable operators. Getting a lot of people to watch those ads means YouTube TV will at least be generous about something. A subscription will include access for six accounts with separate login information, but only three users can watch simultaneously, if they bother.

FCC’s Ajit Pai on Mission to Sabotage Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable Deal Conditions

Pai

As a result of the multibillion dollar cable merger between Charter Communications, Bright House Networks, and Time Warner Cable, the three companies involved freely admitted: your cable bill was unlikely to decrease, you won’t have any new competitive options, there was no guarantee your service would improve, or that you would get faster broadband service than what Time Warner Cable Maxx was already delivering to about half its customer base.

While shareholders and Wall Street bankers made substantial gains, top Time Warner Cable executives walked away with multimillion dollar golden parachute packages, and Charter took control of what is now the country’s supersized, second most powerful cable operator, regulators also required the dealmakers share at least a tiny portion of the spoils with customers.

Then President Donald Trump’s FCC chairman — Ajit Pai — took leadership of the telecom regulator. Now all bets are off.

Pai is reconsidering the settled deal conditions imposed by the FCC under the last administration, and wants to give Charter Communications a free pass to let them out of their commitment to compete. Last week, Pai circulated a petition among his fellow commissioners to roll back the commitment Charter acknowledged to expand its service area to at least one million new homes that already get broadband service from another cable or telephone company.

Former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler sought the competition requirement to prove that cable operators can successfully run their businesses in direct competition with each other, potentially inspiring other cable companies to face off with incumbent operators outside of their own territories. A paradigm shift worked for Google, which inspired ISPs to boost speeds in light of its gigabit Google Fiber service, which reset customer expectations.

The FCC order approving the merger deal was hardly onerous, requiring Charter to compete head-to-head for customers in places the company can choose itself. Lawmakers eliminated exclusive cable franchise agreements years ago, but established major cable operators like Charter have gone out of their way to avoid competing in areas that already receive cable service. While Wheeler may have hoped some of that competition would be directed against fellow cable companies, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge quickly made clear to investors and the FCC Charter would continue to avoid direct cable competition, instead promising to expand service into non-cable areas that already get DSL service from the phone company or no broadband at all.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

Charter’s CEO believes most phone companies are not competing on the same level as cable operators and are unwilling to make the necessary investments to upgrade their aging wired infrastructure to offer faster internet speeds. That makes competing with telephone companies like Windstream, Frontier, and Verizon’s DSL-only service areas a much better proposition than trying to compete head-to-head with Comcast, Cox, or Cablevision.

Rutledge’s clear views about Charter’s expansion plans apparently never made it to the American Cable Association, a cable industry lobbying group that defends the interests of independent and smaller cable operators. Despite Rutledge’s public statements, the ACA and its members are afraid Charter could expand on their turf anyway, potentially forcing small cable operators to compete with the same level of service Charter offers. The horror.

The ACA’s arguments found a sympathetic audience in Mr. Pai and now he wants to let Charter off the hook, at the expense of competition and better service for consumers.

Under the proposal circulated by Pai, Charter would still be required to expand its cable broadband service by at least one million new homes, but those homes would no longer have to be in areas outside of Charter’s existing service footprint. In practical terms, this would mean Charter would focus on wiring areas not far from where it provides service today — ‘DSL or nothing’-country. Charter would also be able to fritter away the number of expansions required by counting newly constructed neighborhood developments it would have likely wired anyway, as well as upgrading its remaining shoddy legacy cable systems — some still incapable of offering broadband or phone service.

The ACA’s talking points prefer to emphasize the David vs. Goliath scenario of a big bully of a cable company like Charter being forced to compete (and likely obliterate) existing small cable operators:

“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” said ACA president and CEO Matthew Polka, in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The real goal here is to minimize direct competition at all costs. The FCC’s deal conditions already included the need for more rural broadband expansion. Wheeler’s second goal was to introduce a new model — cable company competing against cable company — fighting for new customers by offering consumers better service and pricing. The existence of such competition would belie the industry’s claim that cable overbuilds and head-to-head competition is uneconomical. Wildly profitable, perhaps not, but certainly possible. Historically, the traditional way cable operators dealt with the few instances of direct cable competition was to buy them out to put them out of business. Rutledge was certainly thinking along those lines when he complained that the FCC’s order to compete did not include permission to eventually devour its competitor, effectively making competition go away.

Had Charter chosen to compete with cable companies not afraid to spend money to upgrade service above and beyond the anemic broadband speeds Charter offers, it would likely find few takers for its maximum 300Mbps broadband service that comes with a $200 install fee.

“Why would we go where we could get killed?” Rutledge admitted.

Industry claims that the cable business is already fiercely competitive are also countered by Rutledge’s own statements making clear direct competition with brethren cable companies on the cusp of speed-boosting DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades was bad for business. Instead, he would focus on competing with inferior phone companies, which he characterized as mired in debt, still skeptical about the financial wisdom of fiber optic upgrades, and the only competitor where dismal 3-10Mbps DSL service presented a ripe opportunity to steal customers away.

Clyburn – A likely “no” vote.

Charter’s merger approval and its conditions are a sealed deal that was acceptable to Charter and its shareholders and at least offered small token treats to ordinary consumers. Mr. Pai’s willingness to reopen and undo those commitments is just one reason we’ve referred to his regulatory philosophy as irresponsible, nakedly anti-consumer, and anti-competitive. Mr. Pai’s willingness to embrace things as they are comes at the same time most consumers are paying the highest broadband bills ever while also facing an epidemic of usage caps, usage billing, and increasing service and equipment fees. Mr. Pai’s other actions, including ending an effort to introduce competition into the set-top box market, curtailing customer privacy, ending inquiries on usage caps/zero rating, threatening to eliminate Net Neutrality, and reducing the FCC’s already anemic focus on consumer protection makes it clear Mr. Pai is a company man, on a mission to defend the interests of Big Telecom companies and their lobbyists (that also have a history of hiring friendly regulators for high-paying positions once their government job ends.)

That conclusion seems apt considering what Mr. Pai said about Chairman Wheeler’s vision of improving broadband: “one more step down the path of micromanaging where, when, and how ISPs deploy infrastructure.” Missing from his statement are consumers who have spent the last 20 years watching ISPs govern themselves while waiting… waiting… waiting for broadband service that never comes.

Mr. Pai’s proposal needs just one additional vote to win passage. That extra vote is unlikely until President Trump appoints another Republican commissioner. Pai’s proposal isn’t likely to win support from the sole remaining Democrat commissioner still at the FCC — Mignon Clyburn.

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