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Hedge Fund Successfully Pressures FairPoint Communications to Sell Itself

fairpoint greedAn activist group of shareholders led by a hedge fund has successfully pressured executives at FairPoint Communications to sell the company to maximize shareholder value.

The buyer, Illinois-based Consolidated Communications Holdings, Inc., said on Monday it would acquire FairPoint in an all-stock deal worth $1.5 billion, debt included.

The buyout will enrich certain shareholders and hedge funds, including Maglan Capital’s David Tawil and Steven Azarbad, who blasted FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu in a letter sent earlier this summer complaining “shareholders have been extremely patient with the company’s operational turnaround and have suffered because the board has not been vigilant in protecting shareholder value.”

Maglan will cash out its investment initially made after FairPoint went bankrupt, when the share price was below $4. As of 4pm this afternoon, FairPoint stock was trading at $18.85 a share, less than the $23 a share and 75% premium Tawil and Azarbad were hoping for back in August. But they will still walk away earners, selling at around $18 a share plus an additional 17.3% premium. Collectively, the two hedge fund managers control 7.6% of FairPoint’s shares.

consolidated-communications-logoConsolidated Communications will inherit residential FairPoint phone and broadband customers in 17 states, most notably those in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont. But press releases from Consolidated showed little interest in the residential telecommunications business. Instead, Consolidated executives are looking at FairPoint’s business and enterprise customers, and the benefits of owning FairPoint’s 17,000 fiber route mile network.

Critics suggest the deal effectively enriches shareholders while putting FairPoint’s existing debt and buyout on the new owner’s credit card. Consolidated will inherit $887 million of FairPoint’s current debt plus the $1.5 billion cost of the acquisition.

The combined company will keep the Consolidated Communications name and FairPoint Communications as a brand will eventually disappear if regulators approve the transaction sometime in 2017.

Consolidated Communications currently serves residential phone customers in:

  • Suburban/Exurban Sacramento, Calif.
  • Fargo, N.D.
  • Mankato, Minn.
  • West Des Moines, Ia.
  • Suburban Kansas City, Kan.
  • Mattoon, Ill.
  • Lufkin, Conroe, and Katy, Tex.
  • Suburban Pittsburgh, Pa.
FairPoint workers on strike in the fall of 2014. (Image: Labor Notes)

FairPoint workers on strike in the fall of 2014. (Image: Labor Notes)

FairPoint customers and state regulators in New England expressed concern about the transaction. After FairPoint acquired landlines formerly owned by Verizon Communications a decade ago, the transition was described as “disastrous” by regulators, who received scores of complaints about service and billing problems before FairPoint ultimately declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy, mired in debt.

After emerging from bankruptcy, FairPoint has endured union strikes and was assessed multiple fines for failing to meet service quality standards in Maine.

“The last time these assets were sold to FairPoint it was a disastrous outcome for Maine customers,” says Tim Schneider, Maine’s Public Advocate, who represents consumers on utility matters.

Schneider told Maine Public Radio he is planning to scrutinize the deal to prevent further problems, but customers in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont are already expressing concern regulators are just as likely to rubber stamp this sale just like the last one, further saddling them with problematic service.

The owners of Maglan Capital are pleased with themselves, tweeting out this is a “December to Remember.”

Stop the Cap! Reviews AT&T DirecTV Now: The Cord Cutting Revolution Continues

directvnow-planWhen AT&T announced it would offer 100+ cable television and broadcast network channels under the DirecTV Now brand for $35 a month, Wall Street had a fit.

Craig Moffett, an analyst with Moffett-Nathanson, speculated that AT&T would make at most a profit margin of $5 a month for its $35 a month plan, once programming costs were covered. But then AT&T announced it would sweeten the deal with a free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire Stick for those confident enough to prepay for the new service. That makes DirecTV Now a purposefully unprofitable service, creating considerable stress for both the cable and satellite industry and their investors.

Variety notes the average DirecTV satellite subscriber delivers about $60 a month in profit to its owner, AT&T. That led the industry magazine to speculate DirecTV Now is a “loss leader” designed to sell its parent company’s AT&T-Time Warner, Inc. merger deal to regulators on the premise of increased competition delivering real savings to consumers.

Thankfully for Wall Street’s nerves, AT&T’s usual practice of marketing things with a lot of fine print emerged in the nick of time, and the $35 dollar price has now turned out to be an introductory offer for early adopters. In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will enroll new customers for its “Go Big” package at a much more profitable $60 a month. Customers who sign up at the $35 rate and stay customers will be able to keep that price as long as they make no changes to their account after the promotion ends.

Moffett

Moffett

But Moffett warned investors that the traditional cable television model is still under serious threat, and AT&T’s less-promoted “Live a Little” package offering 60 popular cable networks for the everyday price of $35 is the equivalent of AT&T “running with scissors” because it alone could cause millions of cable and satellite customers to cut the cord and stay more than satisfied with a slimmed down cable package.

“Virtually all the channels that anyone would really want, save for regional sports networks” are included in the lighter “Live a Little” package, Moffett added. Customers who loathe watching sports but want a beefier package can also sign up for a $50, 80-channel “Just Right” package that primarily omits sports-oriented channels and a handful of spinoff cable networks few would miss.

Moffett and other Wall Street analysts were hoping AT&T would bloat its cheaper package with home shopping, religion, and other little-watched, low-cost cable networks and then entice customers to upgrade to unlock more popular cable channels. Instead, AT&T’s most premium package — “Gotta Have It” which costs $70 a month adds the “can live without” networks like Boomerang, Cloo, El Rey, Centric, and other little-known channels that typically live unnoticed in Channel Siberia on 500+ channel cable lineups. The highest premium priced package is attractive only for those looking for Starz/Encore channels and the basic cable network that gets no respect — Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (a/k/a the Dick van Dyke Permanent Employment Network.)

prepay-directvnow“By stacking their base package with all the best networks — likely a requirement for getting the programming contracts at all — they still have the same problem that was highlighted initially,” by Moffett. “Put simply, they aren’t going to make any money.”

That quest for profit is further challenged with subscriber acquisition programs that dole out free Apple TV units to customers willing to prepay for three months of service at the $35 rate or an Amazon Fire Stick (with Echo remote) in return for prepaying for one month of service. Anyone in the market for either device can sign up for DirecTV Now, get the equipment at an attractive price, and consider the 1-3 months of service a free extra bonus. Customers were reportedly lining up at AT&T’s owned and operated retail outlets (not authorized resellers) to pick up devices and sign up for service today.

At these prices and with these promotions, AT&T DirecTV Now could first decimate the subscriber base of its immediate competitors Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, either of which offer a much less compelling value. AT&T can afford to charge a lower price because it has deeper pockets and enormous volume discounts on the wholesale price of cable programming — combining millions of DirecTV and U-verse TV subscribers together to negotiate what industry insiders suspect are major discounts the smaller providers cannot get.

But there are issues likely to be deal-breakers for some would-be DirecTV Now subscribers:

  • Local broadcast stations are available only in a handful of selected cities and only a very few include all ABC, NBC, and FOX affiliates. CBS is not participating in DirecTV Now at this time, and that is a major omission;
  • NFL Network isn’t on the lineup;
  • Regional sports networks are spotty and geographically restricted. Here is a detailed PDF outlining options by zip code;
  • There is a limit of two concurrent streams and although video quality is very good, it is not the 1080/HD experience AT&T’s marketing material would suggest. The quality of your internet connection will make a difference;
  • No DVR option at this time.

CNET compiled an excellent channel comparison chart to help consumers figure out which, if any, of these upstarts make sense as a cable TV replacement:

DirecTV Now vs. Sling TV vs. PlayStation Vue (top 169 channels, see notes below)

Channel DirecTV Now Packages Sling Package Vue Package
A&E Live a Little Orange, Blue No
ABC Yes or VOD Broadcast extra Yes or VOD
AMC Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
American Heroes Go Big No Elite
Animal Planet Live a Little No Access
Audience Live a Little No No
AXS TV Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Baby TV No Kids extra No
BBC America Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
BBC World News Go Big News extra Elite
beIN Sports No Sports extra Core
BET Live a Little Blue (Orange lifestyle extra) No
Bloomberg TV Live a Little Base No
Boomerang Gotta Have It Kids extra Elite
Bravo Live a Little Blue Access
BTN Just Right No Core
Campus Insiders No Sports extra No
Cartoon Network/Adult Swim Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
CBS No No Yes or VOD
CBS Sports No No No
Centric Go Big No No
Cheddar No Orange, Blue No
Chiller Gotta Have It No Elite
Cinemax PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM No
Cloo Gotta Have It No Elite
CMT Live a Little Comedy extra No
CNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
CNBC World Just Right No Elite
CNN Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Comedy Central Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Comedy.TV Just Right No No
Cooking Channel Just Right Lifestyle extra Elite
CSPAN Live a Little No No
Destination America Go Big No Access
Discovery Channel Live a Little No Access
Discovery Family Go Big No Access
Discovery Life Go Big No Elite
Disney Channel Live a Little Orange Access
Disney Junior Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
Disney XD Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
DIY Go Big Lifestyle extra Access
Duck TV No Kids extra No
E! Live a Little Lifestyle extra Blue Access
El Rey Network Gotta Have It Orange, Blue No
Encore Gotta Have It No No
EPIX No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Drive-in No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Hits No Hollywood extra PREMIUM, Elite
EPIX2 No Hollywood extra No
ESPN Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN 2 Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN Bases Loaded No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Buzzer Beater No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Deportes No Spanish TV extra Orange Elite
ESPN Goal Line No Sports extra Orange No
ESPNEWS Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
ESPNU Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Esquire No No Access
Euro News No World News Extra No
Flama No Orange, Blue No
Food Network Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Fox Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
Fox Business Live a Little No Access
Fox College Sports Atlantic No No Elite
Fox College Sports Central No No Elite
Fox College Sports Pacific No No Elite
Fox News Live a Little No Access
Fox Sports 1 Live a Little Blue Access
Fox Sports 2 Go Big Blue Access
Fox Sports Prime Ticket Just Right No No
France 24 No World News Extra No
Freeform Live a Little Orange Access
Fuse Just Right No No
Fusion Just Right World News Extra Elite
FX Live a Little Blue Access
FXM Go Big No Elite
FXX Live a Little Blue Access
FYI Go Big Lifestyle extra No
Galavision Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Golf Channel Go Big Sports extra Blue Core
GSN Just Right Comedy extra No
Hallmark Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries No LIfestyle extra No
HBO PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM PREMIUM, Ultra
HDNet Movies No Hollywood extra No
HGTV Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Hi-Yah No No Elite
History Live a Little Orange, Blue No
HLN Live a Little News extra Access
HSN No No No
IFC Just Right Orange, Blue Core
Ion No No No
Impact No No Elite
Investigation Discovery Live a Little No Access
JusticeCentral.TV Just Right No No
Lifetime Live a Little Orange, Blue No
LMN Just Right Lifestyle extra No
Local Now No Orange, Blue No
LOGO Go Big Comedy extra No
Longhorn Network Just Right No No
Machinima No No Elite
Maker No Orange, Blue No
MGM-HD No No Elite
MLB Network Just Right No No
Motors TV No Sports extra No
MSNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
MTV Live a Little Comedy extra No
MTV Classic Go Big No No
MTV2 Live a Little Comedy extra No
Nat Geo Wild Go Big Blue Elite
National Geographic Live a Little Blue Access
NBA TV Go Big Sports extra Core
NBC Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
NBC Sports Network Just Right Blue Access
NDTV 24/7 No World News Extra No
News 18 India No World News Extra No
Newsy No Orange, Blue No
NFL Network No Blue Core
NFL Red Zone No Sports extra (Blue) PREMIUM (Core and up)
NHL Network Go Big Sports extra No
Nick Jr. Live a Little Blue No
Nickelodeon Live a Little No No
Nicktoons Live a Little Kids Extra Blue No
ONE World Sports No No Elite
Outdoor Channel No No No
Outside Television No Sports extra Elite
OWN Just Right No Access
Oxygen Just Right Lifestyle extra Blue Access
Palladia No No Elite
PBS No No No
Poker Central No No Elite
Polaris No Orange, Blue Elite
POP No No Access
QVC No No No
Revolt Go Big No No
RFD TV Live a Little No No
Russia Today No World News Extra No
Science Just Right No Access
SEC Network Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Showtime No No PREMIUM, Elite
Spike Live a Little Comedy extra No
Sprout Go Big No Elite
Starz Gotta Have It PREMIUM No
Sundance TV Go Big Hollywood extra Core
Syfy Live a Little Blue Access
TBS Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
TCM Live a Little Hollywood extra Core
Teen Knick Live a Little Kids extra Blue Elite
Telemundo Live a Little No No
Tennis Channel Go Big No No
The Weather Channel Live a Little No No
TLC Live a Little No Access
TNT Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Travel Channel Just Right Orange, Blue Access
truTV Live a Little Blue (Orange comedy extra) Access
TV Land Live a Little Comedy extra No
TVG Go Big No No
Universal HD No No Elite
Univision Live a Little Blue (Orange Broadcast extra) No
Univision Deportes Gotta Have It Sports extra No
Univision Mas Just Right Blue (Orange Broadcast Extra) No
USA Network Live a Little Blue Access
Velocity HD Live a Little No Elite
VH1 Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
VH1 Classic No No Elite
Vibrant TV No Lifestyle extra No
Viceland Live a Little Orange, Blue No
WE tv Live a Little Lifestyle extra Access
WeatherNation Live a Little No No
Notes

Broadcast networks including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are not available for live streaming in many cities, except where noted as “yes.” The term “VOD” means viewers can watch these shows on-demand 24 hours after airing.
Most RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) not listed; varies per locality

PREMIUM = Available for an additional monthly fee beyond base package

DirecTV Now package key:
Live a Little = $35/month (Local ABC, Fox, NBC broadcasts included in select markets)
Just Right = $50/month
Go Big = $60/month ($35 / month introductory price)
Gotta Have It = $70/month

Sling TV package key:
Orange = $20/month
Blue = $25/month
other “”extras”” = another $5 /month each (Sports extra with Blue is $10)
Broacast Extra: ABC, Univision and Univision Mas available to Sling Orange subscribers in select cities

PlayStation Vue package key:
(for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami ONLY)
Access (Base) = $40/month
Core = $45/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite = $55/month (includes Access and Core channels)
Ultra = $75/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

(for all other cities, where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are available via VOD only)
Access Slim (Base) = $30/month
Core Slim = $35/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite Slim = $45/month (includes Core and Access channels)
Ultra Slim = $65/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

Time Warner, Inc. did its part, offering a substantial deal to DirecTV Now to allow customers to add HBO and Cinemax for just $5 a month each, substantially less than what both networks charge customers signing up a-la-carte. This also unlocks access to streaming options on both networks’ websites.

In fact, as a DirecTV Now customer, you will also become an authenticated pay television subscriber, unlocking access on various cable network websites to extra streaming and on-demand options.

The implications of DirecTV Now depend on how long AT&T extends its $35 offer, which is going to be compelling for a lot of Americans. Moffett predicts DirecTV Now could sign up a staggering 11 million Americans — at least two million cannibalized from its own DirecTV satellite customer base, six million cutting the cord on their cable company (including AT&T U-verse) and another three million cord-cutters or “cable-nevers.” Most of the latter are Millennials, and research suggests $35 may be low enough of a price point to sign them up.

AT&T is also raising concerns among internet activists because online streaming of DirecTV Now will not count against an AT&T postpaid customer’s data allowance. This zero rating scheme is seen as an end run around Net Neutrality, particularly because AT&T is not as generous with its competitors. AT&T said it will offer other video streamers the possibility of being exempted from AT&T data allowances, if they pay AT&T for the privilege.

How It Works/Signing Up

AT&T DirecTV Now starts with the Google Chrome 50+, Safari 8+ or Internet Explorer 11+ (on Windows 8 and up) web browsers or the DirecTV Now app. AT&T recommends Chrome for desktop viewing. The service doesn’t work with Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or legacy browsers.

The first step is registering for a 7-day free trial. Before handing over your credit card number, if you scroll down you will find a small free preview option is also available that includes a largely useless streaming barker channel promoting the service and a respectable collection of video on demand options from basic cable networks. The free video streaming option will give you a clue about how the service is likely to perform on your internet connection and devices. For the record, DirecTV Now now supports:

Support for other devices like Roku is coming next year.

Customers must be within the United States to use the service. If you travel abroad or to any U.S. territories like Guam, the Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, DirecTV Now will stop working until you return. When you sign up, keep in mind your billing zip code will mean a lot when it comes to accessing regional sports and local broadcast channels. DirecTV Now uses your billing zip code and your actual location to determine whether you are qualified to access regional sports networks and local stations.

Score a Free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire TV Stick

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

If you are looking to score an Apple TV (4th generation) or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, you will want to skip the 7-day free trial and enroll in a paid plan immediately, which will allow you to select which player you want. If you want the Apple TV, you will prepay for three months at $35 a month ($105). The Amazon Fire TV Stick only requires you to prepay for the first month of service ($35). One device per email address, but you can sign up for multiple accounts (using individual email addresses) and get a device for each — especially useful for larger families that could run into DirecTV Now’s two-stream limit.

Consider your choices before enrolling. If you want to add premium channels or upgrade your plan, and you select the three-month prepay option to grab an Apple TV Player, adding premium channels like HBO and Cinemax or moving to a higher plan will result in three months of prepaid charges for those upgrades as well, billed automatically to your credit card on file — which amounts to a $30 charge if you select HBO and Cinemax. After your promotional prepaid term ends, your account will continue to be billed at the $35 (plus any add-ons) rate until you cancel. AT&T covers you for the forfeited first free week by extending your bill date out by seven days. Allow 2-3 weeks for the device(s) to be shipped to you.

You can also sign up at an AT&T owned and operated retail store, but be aware AT&T “authorized” reseller stores are not participating in this promotion. That may allow you to bring home a device today.

Don’t care about the device promotions? Take the 7-day free trial, but be aware that you are giving AT&T your credit card number and charges begin immediately after the free week ends unless you cancel. Here’s how:

  1. Sign in to your account.
  2. From your User Account overview page, select Manage My Plan.
  3. Select the Cancel Plan link.
  4. Choose one of the listed reasons.
  5. Select Cancel Now to confirm cancellation.

Your subscription will continue until the end of the billing cycle. No refunds or credits are provided for partial months. Your account will revert to Freeview demo status after you cancel a subscription.  You can add a subscription package back at any time.

Oddly, AT&T is not charging sales tax for New York, California, Maryland or Virginia residents. Customers in states like Tennessee where AT&T provides local phone service were most likely to face sales taxes. Those signing up early are in the best position to exploit what appears to be an oversight, or it represents the first time the New York Department of Taxation and Finance left money on the table.

directv-now-price

Streaming from Your AT&T Wireless Device Does Not Count Against Your Data Allowance

If you’re a DirecTV Now and AT&T Wireless customer, streaming most DirecTV Now movies and programs over the AT&T wireless network won’t count against your data usage allowance, according to AT&T. But believe it or not, AT&T’s fine print indicates advertisements and non-streaming app activity do count! There are some other important disclosures to be aware of:

  • You must be on the AT&T Wireless network within the U.S. (U.S. territories are not qualified for zero rating);
  • You must be a postpaid, not a prepaid AT&T wireless customer to qualify and must not have “data block” on your mobile line;
  • If you are grandfathered on an unlimited data plan, using DirecTV Now will not count against the 22GB data threshold which subjects you to speed throttling;
  • This offer may disappear at any time and/or is subject to change.

DirecTV Now Qualifies You as an Authenticated Pay Television Subscriber

Many cable networks require customers enter their cable, satellite, or telco TV login credentials to unlock video streaming and on-demand features. DirecTV Now is a qualified provider for these websites (more coming):

Other networks are not yet enabled for DirecTV Now. CNN, for example, has a prompt for DirecTV satellite customers to log in, but DirecTV Now has its own account registration system.

Local Channels Are Very Spotty

Local over the air channels are very limited on DirecTV Now and are geographically restricted. You can access these channels only if you are located in or very near to the cities listed below and your billing zip code is in the same area. If you travel outside of the immediate area, live streaming will stop working until you return.

ABC*  NBC**  FOX  and Telemundo  are covered by DirecTV Now in selected cities. CBS is not available on the service at all at this time.

  • wlsAtlanta, GA: WAGA-TV
  • Austin, TX: KTBC
  • Boston, MA: Telemundo East
  • Charlotte, NC: WJZY
  • Chicago, IL: WLS-TV, WMAQ, WFLD, Telemundo East
  • Dallas-Ft Worth, TX: KXAS, KDFW-TV, Telemundo East
  • Denver, CO: Telemundo East
  • fox2Detroit, MI: WJBK
  • Fresno-Visalia, CA: KFSN-TV, Telemundo East
  • Gainesville, FL: WOGX
  • Hartford-New Haven, CT: WVIT
  • Houston, TX: KTRK-TV, Telemundo East
  • 4nbcLas Vegas, NV: Telemundo East
  • Los Angeles, CA: KABC-TV, KNBC, KTTV, Telemundo East
  • Miami-Ft Lauderdale, FL: WTVJ, Telemundo East
  • Minneapolis, MN: KMSP-TV
  • New York, NY: WABC-TV, WNBC, WNYW, Telemundo East
  • Orlando-Daytona, FL: WOFL
  • Philadelphia, PA: WPVI-TV, WCAU, WTXF-TV, Telemundo East
  • Phoenix, AZ: KSAZ-TV, Telemundo East
  • Raleigh-Durham, NC: WTVD-TV
  • San Diego, CA: KNSD
  • San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, CA: KGO-TV, KNTV, KTVU
  • Tampa-St Petersburg, FL: WTVT
  • Washington, D.C.: WRC, WTTG

*Not available on Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 7. **NBC live stream available on mobile and desktop devices only.

Giving the Service a Test

Stop the Cap! enrolled as an ordinary customer this morning and gave the service a rigorous test, including multiple streams over our 50/5Mbps internet connection. The service debuted today, and there is little doubt there is intense interest from consumers, so we expected some performance problems from the initial demand. We didn’t see any evidence of traffic congestion, however, and that is a good sign.

AT&T's John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

AT&T’s John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

A similar test of Sling TV did not perform as well during peak viewing times, when streaming problems emerged. DirecTV Now seems to be built to withstand intense demand.

One customer with a 6Mbps U-verse internet connection “in the boonies” was impressed the video quality of DirecTV Now was high even on a relatively slow DSL-like connection.

“This blows SlingTV away,” the person shared. “I only have U-verse 6Mbps internet service and it is not pixelated or buffering at all. Looks exactly like my regular DirecTV picture.”

AT&T published these recommendations for DirecTV Now customers regarding internet connection speeds:

  • 150kbps – 2.5Mbps – Minimum broadband connection speed for Mobile devices
  • 2.5 – 5.0Mbps – Recommended for HD quality

We’ve been led to believe DirecTV Now should perform equivalently to 1080i HDTV service (depending on the video source of course). We cannot say we agree it does right now. We noticed significant artifacts on high-motion video and picture graininess that left us feeling this was closer to a 720p HD experience. It isn’t possible to say whether the video player reduced playback quality because of internet traffic issues we were unaware of or if this is how the picture is supposed to look. It did not significantly detract from the viewing experience and the lack of buffering and pixelation was far more important to us.

AT&T store in NYC.

AT&T store in NYC.

DirecTV Now would serve adequately as a cable TV replacement if it had local station coverage and some type of DVR. At present, DirecTV Now is limited to a “Restart” feature that allows you to restart shows already in progress on certain channels, but you cannot fast-forward or record a restarted show. Once AT&T introduces a cloud-based DVR and fills out the local station lineup, this service could be lethal to overpriced cable TV packages.

AT&T’s marketing attempts to undercut the powerful position of inertia by setting an unknown time limit for customers to enroll in the $35 a month video package. If you don’t sign up today, you may not get the “free” Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick and a respectable cable TV package for just $35 a month — about half what cable operators are charging these days for their bloated video packages. AT&T doesn’t care if you stick with your current cable provider and signup for DirecTV Now, if only to grab free streaming video equipment while sampling the service. They get their money either way.

Had AT&T permanently kept the price at around $35, many consumers would likely sit back and wait for AT&T to sort out the streaming contract issues it has with the TV networks — CBS in particular, and come up with a DVR solution before those potential customers decided to sign up and make the change. Based on several “hot deals” websites, the mentality among many consumers is to “lock in” the $35 price now and wait for AT&T to build out the package while continuing to invest $35 a month on it. That doesn’t seem so bad when you get free electronics as part of the deal.

Our Final Take

AT&T’s DirecTV Now is a potential winner and worth signing up for because of the introductory price and free equipment offers. But if you decide not to disconnect your cable/satellite television service, it is probably safe to drop DirecTV Now after your prepayment expires and return to resume service a little later. There will probably be some warning when AT&T will end the introductory price for the service, and interested customers can hop back on board before that date arrives. DirecTV Now will be a formidable competitor, but it will fight against consumer resistance to confront the cable company and cut cable’s cord until it solves the local channels issue and has a credible DVR option. The service could also use an add-on to make adding additional concurrent streams possible and more affordable than just signing up for a second account.

Don’t count out Big Cable just yet. With data caps and other internet overcharging schemes, Comcast, Cox, Suddenlink, and others can play games with usage allowances to deter customers from streaming all of their video entertainment online at the risk of blowing past their allowance. DirecTV Now’s $35 price won’t mean much after overlimit fees begin appearing on your internet bill.

Wall Street: The Time is Right for a Comcast-Verizon Mega-Merger

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

(Image courtesy: FCC.com)

Many of President-elect Donald Trump’s choices for America’s newest regulators have track records of being so “hands-off,” it is hard to find their fingerprints.

Wall Street expects the Trump Administration and the Republican majority in Congress to eliminate vast swaths of regulatory oversight, perhaps enough to put the federal government’s involvement in commerce at a level not seen since before the Great Depression. UBS analyst John Hodulik believes the Trump Administration will look the other way as an unprecedented frenzy of corporate mergers and acquisitions begins — mergers that would never have passed an antitrust review during prior administrations.

Hodulik might as well suggest the next four years could represent The Great Convergence, as cable and wireless operators merge, potentially leaving the majority of Americans with just one choice for telecommunications services.

“We have long believed that secular changes in technology and usage would lead to the convergence of the cable and wireless industries,” Hodulik said. “The transformation of the internet into a mobile-first platform combined with the rapid migration of video from proprietary networks to digital and the rise in competitive pressure this entails increases the value of an integrated fixed and wireless service to cable providers. Densification of wireless networks required to meet the needs of video-centric subscribers increases synergies of cable-wireless combinations and provides the springboard for 5G-based services. A roll-back of Title II re-classification could further increase incentives for cable.”

Hodulik envisions that a wave of mergers during the first term of the Trump Administration could look like this:

  • Comcast <-> Verizon: Conquering the northeast and mid-Atlantic states, a supersized Comcast would likely be the only telecommunications company offering broadband service in states like New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland with Verizon FiOS just another flavor of Comcast’s coaxial and fiber network. The only remaining competitors of significance would be Frontier Communications in Connecticut and upstate New York and FairPoint Communications in northern New England. Charter Communications would also still provide cable service in New York, Massachusetts, and parts of the Carolinas. Hodulik called the effective monopoly a win-win for shareholders of Comcast and Verizon. Customers are likely to hold a different view.
  • Charter <-> T-Mobile/Sprint or Dish Networks: As the number two player, Charter already envisions offering wireless phone service through an arrangement it has with Verizon. But in a “converged” world, why rent someone else’s network when you can buy your own. Deutsche Telekom has been a motivated seller since AT&T tried and failed to buy T-Mobile USA and Sprint’s largely uninspiring performance may make it an easy sell for Japan’s Softbank. The wildcard: Dish Networks. Charter might want Dish’s huge number of video subscribers to win itself better volume discounts for cable programming.
  • Never forget about Altice, laying the foundation for another wave of buyouts starting in 2017. So far, Altice seems interested in the handful of remaining independent cable companies — Cox, Cable One, Mediacom, and the few others increasingly becoming anomalies in the consolidated cable marketplace. Cox and Mediacom may have to be coaxed to sell much the same way Cablevision was — by overpaying.

Hodulik also believes some side mergers may also turn up, especially a Dish/T-Mobile deal that would bring Dish’s large wireless spectrum holdings into T-Mobile’s network. T-Mobile could also sell Dish programming by streaming it over the internet and/or mobile devices.

Trump’s Short List for FCC Chairman Contains Industry Insider Who Questions Need for FCC

robber-barons

Making America Great for Robber Barons Again

The president-elect’s choice for chairing the Federal Communications Commission may conclude there is little reason to even have a regulatory agency for telecommunications.

Donald Trump has gone farther to the right than any president-elect in modern history, at least in how he has chosen to staff his transition team. Having a place on that team is traditionally seen as a fast track to getting a plum cabinet position or leadership role in Washington’s bureaucracy, and Mr. Trump’s choices for overseeing tech and telecom policy have more in common with Ayn Rand than Ralph Nader.

Two of the top picks for his FCC transition team are true believers in the “laissez-faire/the free market always knows best” camp, but both have also been on the payroll of Big Telecom companies that believe special favors are perfectly acceptable.

The notorious D.C. revolving doorman Jeffrey Eisenach, now a leading contender for the next chairman of the FCC, is a man with so many hats that the New York Times published an exposé on him, noting it has become hard to tell whether Eisenach’s views are his own, those of his friends at the corporate-friendly American Enterprise Institute (AEI), or those of various telecom companies like Verizon that have had him on the payroll.

Eisenach has been heavily criticized for his especially close ties to telecom companies, fronting their positions at various Washington events often under the cover of his role as a “think tank scholar” at AEI. Eisenach despises Net Neutrality with a passion, and has used every opportunity to attack the open internet protection policies as overregulation. At the same time, Eisenach’s consulting firm was also doing work on behalf of the cellular telephone industry, including Verizon and other cell companies.

Eisenach is exceptionally casual about disclosing any paid financial ties, and has received criticism for it. His prominence as a member of the Trump transition team is therefore curious, considering incoming vice president Mike Pence has tried to clean the transition team of lobbyists.

Eisenach

Eisenach

Trump’s other leading contender is Mark Jamison, a former lobbyist for Sprint who now works for AEI. Jamison has received less attention and scrutiny from the telecommunications press, but in some cases his views, well-represented on his blog, are even more extreme than those of Mr. Eisenach.

In a 2013 report to the Florida Public Service Commission, Jamison looked down on consumer involvement in creating and enforcing telecom regulations:

Does customer involvement in regulation improve outcomes? Not always, according to PURC Director Mark Jamison. Speaking at the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission annual conference in Brisbane, Australia, Dr. Jamison explained that the key question is, “Who do we expect to change when regulators and customers engage?” Most discussion on customer engagement is about customers informing regulators about customer preferences and utility practices. Learning by regulators is important, but so are the building legitimacy, ensuring regulator integrity, and engaging in adaptive learning that are largely about changing customers. An over emphasis on changing regulators can result in pandering to current norms, which hinders institutional strengthening and adaptive work.

In that same report, Jamison echoed some of the same sentiments he has made on his blog, questioning the wisdom of regulating telecommunications policies, providing subsidies to ensure affordable telephone service (Lifeline), subsidizing rural broadband expansion, and maintaining the core concept of universal service, which means assuring every American that wants utility service can affordably get it.

Jamison even questioned the need for the FCC in its current form, particularly overseeing rate regulation, fair competition, and enforcing rules that overturn the telecom industry’s cartel-like agreement on mandated set-top boxes (and rental fees), Net Neutrality and interconnection agreements and fees, and consumer protection:

Most of the original motivations for having an FCC have gone away. Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies. If there are instances where there are monopolies, it would seem overkill to have an entire federal agency dedicated to ex ante regulation of their services. A well-functioning Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in conjunction with state authorities, can handle consumer protection and anticompetitive conduct issues.

Content on the web competes well with content provided by broadcasters, seeming to eliminate any need for FCC oversight of broadcasters. Perhaps there is need for rules for use of the airwaves during times of emergency, but that can be handled without regulating the content providers themselves.

The only FCC activity that would seem to warrant having an independent agency is the licensing of radio spectrum. Political interference in spectrum licenses would at least dampen investment and could lead to rampant corruption in the form of valuable spectrum space being effectively handed out to political cronies.

Jamison

Jamison

Jamison’s theories are interesting, but in the real world they are impractical and frankly untrue. Readers of Stop the Cap! have long witnessed the impact of the insufficiently competitive telecom marketplace — higher broadband fees, data caps, and relentlessly terrible customer service. The costs to provide service have declined, but prices continue to rise. For many consumers, there is barely a duopoly for telecom services with cable companies taking runaway victory laps for providing 21st century broadband speeds while an area’s phone company continues to try to compete with underinvested DSL. The FTC has been a no-show on every important telecom issues of our time, in part because the industry got itself deregulated, leaving oversight options very limited.

It wasn’t the FTC that halted AT&T’s attempted buyout of T-Mobile and Comcast didn’t lose its struggle to acquire Time Warner Cable because of the FTC either. Pushback from the FCC and Department of Justice proved to be the only brakes on an otherwise consolidation-crazed telecom sector.

Oversight of broadcasting remains important because unlike private networks, the airwaves are a publicly owned resource used for the good of the American people. Jamison would abandon what little is left of regulations that required broadcasters to serve the public interest, not just private profit motives. Programming content is not the only matter of importance. Who gets a license to run a television or radio station matters, and so does the careful coordination of spectrum. It is ironic Jamison theorizes that a lack of regulation (of spectrum) would lead to political interference, rampant corruption, and cronyism. Anyone who has followed our experiences dealing with many state regulatory bodies and elected officials over telecom mergers and data caps can already use those words to describe what has happened since near-total deregulation policies have been enacted.

Public and private broadband competitors like local communities and Google have been harassed, stymied, and delayed by organized interference coordinated by incumbent telecom companies. Allowing them off the leash, as Jamison advocates, would only further entrench these companies. We have a long history in the United States dealing with unfettered monopoly powers and trusts. Vital infrastructure and manufacturing sectors were once held captive by a handful of industrialists and robber barons, and consumers paid dearly while those at the top got fabulously rich. Their wealth and power grew so vast and enduring, we are still familiar with their names even today — Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Schwab, Mellon, Duke, and Carnegie, just to name a few.

Jamison wrote a blog entry mapping out how to ultimately destroy the effectiveness of the FCC:

  • Take direction from politicians,
  • Promote partisan divides,
  • Change the language in orders after the FCC votes,
  • Ignore the facts, or at least manipulate them.

Jamison intended to argue that represented the current state of the Obama Administration’s FCC, but it is just as easy to ponder what comes after the Trump-lit bonfire of burned regulations and oversight, leaving only Big Telecom companies and their paid mouthpieces to manipulate the facts.

Jamison also undercuts his own argument in two other ways: first by declaring Michael Powell one of the great FCC chairmen of the modern era (after leaving the FCC he became president of the country’s biggest cable industry lobbying group) and second by relying extensively on quoting people with direct and undisclosed financial ties to the telecom companies that will directly benefit from implementing Jamison’s world views.

New York Times: In a 2014 email, Mr. Eisenach encouraged Michael O’Rielly, a Republican F.C.C. commissioner, to use an American Enterprise Institute event to “lay out the case against” internet regulations.

New York Times: In a 2014 email, Mr. Eisenach encouraged Michael O’Rielly, a Republican FCC commissioner, to use an American Enterprise Institute event to “lay out the case against” internet regulations.

Who doesn’t ultimately matter much in this debate, according to Jamison, are customers and consumers, whose input in these discussions is dismissed as either trendy or misinformed. No similar conclusions are forthcoming from Mr. Jamison about the influence and misinformation emanating from huge telecommunications companies that keep more than a few of his self-interested sources in comfortable suburban Virginia homes, driving their nice cars to and from the offices of shadowy think tanks that receive direct corporate funding or go out of their way to hide their benefactors.

Appointing either Mr. Eisenach or Mr. Jamison to the Federal Communications Commission would be the ultimate rubber stamping of business as usual in Washington, exactly what Donald Trump ran against. That may make Verizon or Comcast “great again,” but it certainly won’t help the rest of the country.

Charter/Spectrum Relocating Northeast Regional HQ to Rochester, N.Y.

Artist rendition of Charter's new regional headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

Artist rendition of Charter’s new regional headquarters in Rochester, N.Y.

The northeast region of Charter/Spectrum, encompassing six states, will soon be managed from a new regional headquarters office to be opened in Rochester, N.Y.

Elected officials across western New York joined Gov. Andrew Cuomo to congratulate Charter Communications for its decision to locate its new headquarters in suburban Rochester, where the cable company is expected to add 228 new full-time jobs.

Gov. Cuomo announced Charter will invest more than $2.9 million to renovate its existing offices on Mount Hope Avenue in downtown Rochester and its new 46,000 square-foot facility in Henrietta, which will house regional executives, call center workers, and technicians. New York taxpayers will cover $2.5 million of those costs through the Empire State Development Corporation, a public-benefit corporation that offers tax credits in return for job creation commitments.

“This expansion of one of the nation’s leading cable providers in the Finger Lakes is a clear signal that our economic strategy is driving innovation and transforming the local economy,” Gov. Cuomo said. “Cutting-edge companies are betting on this region like never before and are growing their businesses and creating-good paying jobs in the process. By incentivizing private sector growth, we are generating momentum and strengthening the economy in Monroe County and beyond.”

Cuomo

Cuomo

“By early next year, this beautifully restored facility will allow us to bring together our field operations leadership and vital support functions under one roof,” said Charter executive vice president of field operations Tom Adams. “Through our partnership with the New York State Economic Development Corporation, the Rochester area benefits from an influx of high-paying technical jobs, while our customers across Upstate New York and throughout New England benefit from improved communication, collaboration and efficiency in our operations.”

Time Warner Cable employed 460 workers at its existing office in downtown Rochester. Charter’s new regional headquarters will add 230 workers.

Gov. Cuomo has heavily promoted New York as a new corporate-friendly state to create jobs and grow businesses. The “Finger Lakes Forward” initiative has already spent $3.4 billion in the region since 2012 to invest in and attract key industries like photonics, agriculture/food production, and advanced manufacturing. The plan has seen some success for the key regions of Rochester (photonics), Batavia (milk/yogurt production), and Canandaigua (mixed manufacturing), but has not been as successful keeping jobs when businesses have downsizing on their mind.

For Rochester, Charter’s announcement will still result in a net job loss of more than 300 jobs in the telecommunications sector because of Verizon Wireless’ announced closure of its Rochester call center, which will eliminate 645 jobs in the area when the facility closes Jan. 27, 2017. The governor’s office called Verizon’s job cuts “an egregious example of corporate abuse.”

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