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Tennessee Electric Co-Op Threatens to Rip Comcast’s Wires Off Its Poles Next Week

If Comcast doesn’t send a check for $176,000 to cover the last three years of pole attachment fees owed to the Southwest Tennessee Electric Membership Corporation (STEMC), the electric co-op is prepared to rip Comcast’s lines right off its poles.

Comcast, under a license agreement with the utility, pays a small fee to the utility to place its infrastructure on its utility poles. Comcast has not paid since June 2014, and if the cable giant doesn’t send a check by June 28, STEMC will remove Comcast’s attachments from their poles, knocking out cable service for thousands of customers.

“We’ve been going back and forth with them for going on three years now trying to get payment out of them,” said STEMC chief financial officer Scott Sims.

A notice on STEMC’s website explains Comcast’s foot-dragging isn’t fair to the cooperative:

We regret that some customers may lose their Comcast service.  However, the full cost and maintenance of these utility poles are borne by all members of STEMC, and we cannot allow STEMC members to subsidize Comcast’s services.  We are hopeful that Comcast will make payment prior to the deadline and avoid the need to remove their cable attachments.

Many residents are taking the side of the utility, pointing out Comcast would have shut off their cable service long before Comcast’s three years of non-payment.

A Comcast representative told WREG-TV that STEMC started billing Comcast double what they used to, claiming to have discovered previously unbilled pole attachments. Comcast wanted evidence of these attachments from STEMC, despite the fact they were capable of counting their own cable subscribers in the area, and refused to make a payment until this information was provided. Comcast claims it finally got evidence this month.

“Since receiving that information, we have completed our own audit and are taking the appropriate next steps to arrange for payment in the correct amount,” Comcast said in a released statement. “We look forward to working with STEMC to resolve this issue quickly and ensure that our mutual customers’ services are not disrupted.”

Former FCC Commissioner: Ajit Pai & Co. Represent the Worst FCC Ever

Phillip Dampier June 20, 2017 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Copps (Image: Peretz Partensky)

Former interim FCC chairman and commissioner Michael Copps has become so disillusioned with the agenda of the Trump Administration’s FCC, he’s ready to conclude its current leadership under Chairman Ajit Pai represents the worst FCC ever.

In an effort to erase the Obama Administration, President Trump has made it a priority to actively reverse the former administration’s policies. The FCC is no exception, and according to an article published by Moyers & Co., the Republican majority running the FCC these days are actively on board White House strategist Steve Bannon’s campaign to “deconstruct the administrative state.”

Author Michael Winship calls Pai an enthusiastic supporter of Donald Trump’s “doctrine of regulatory devastation,” and it appears Copps agrees as he comments on the current FCC agenda to dismantle set-top box competition, Net Neutrality, Lifeline internet service for the poor, restricting media consolidation, consumer’s privacy rights, and general oversight of the telecom industry.

Pai’s Garbage

“I think the April 26 speech that Ajit Pai gave at the Newseum, which was partially funded, I think, by conservative activist causes, was probably the worst speech I’ve ever heard a commissioner or a chairman of the FCC give,” Copps said. “It was replete with distorted history and a twisted interpretation of judicial decisions. And then, about two-thirds of the way through, it became intensely political and ideological, and he was spouting all this Ronald Reagan nonsense — if the government is big enough to do what you want, it’s big enough to take away everything you have, and all that garbage. It was awful. It’s maybe the worst FCC I’ve ever seen or read about.”

Today, Copps is special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at the nonpartisan grassroots organization Common Cause. He “just may be,” Bill Moyers once said, “the most knowledgeable fellow in Washington on how communications policy affects you and me.”

Ajit Pai at Newseum, Apr. 26, 2017 (Image: C-SPAN)

Under the Trump Administration, Copps believes we are watching a wholesale transfer of the most important tools in a democracy — real news, diversity of ideas, and access to an open internet into the hands of a handful of mega-corporations and special interests that have bankrolled the Republican party and the election of Donald Trump.

“This is not populism; this is a plutocracy,” Copps warned. “Trump has surrounded himself with millionaires and billionaires, plus some ideologues who believe in, basically, no government. And the Trump FCC already has been very successful in dismantling lots of things — not just the Net Neutrality that they’re after now, but privacy, and Lifeline, which is subsidized broadband for those who can’t afford it. And just all sorts of things up and down the line. The whole panoply of regulation and public interest oversight — if they could get rid of it all, they would; if they can, they will.”

In fact, Copps noted, there were several conservative advisers on Trump’s transition team that advocated abolishing the FCC outright, believing consolidated telecom companies and media empires can successfully regulate themselves.

“I don’t know if Donald Trump is good for the country. but he’s damn good for CBS.”

“[CBS CEO Les] Moonves said it best: ‘I don’t know if Donald Trump is good for the country. but he’s damn good for CBS,'” Copps said. “The election was just a glorified reality show and I do not think it was an aberration. Until we get that big picture straightened out and we get a civic dialogue that’s worthy of the American people and that actually advances citizens’ ability to practice the art of self-government — that informs citizens so they can cast intelligent votes and we stop making such damn-fool decisions — we’re in serious trouble.”

Copps complained the mainstream media isn’t even covering stories about digital democracy, instead preoccupied with 24/7 coverage of the circus in Washington, D.C.

“I don’t think right now that commercial media is going to fix itself or even that we can save it with any policy that’s likely in the near-term, so we have to start looking at other alternatives,” Copps advised. “We have to talk about public media — public media probably has to get its act together somewhat, too. It’s not everything that Lyndon Johnson had in mind back in 1967 [when the Public Broadcasting Act was signed], but it’s still the jewel of our media ecosystem. So I’m more worried than ever about the state of our media — not just fake news but the lack of real news.”

Exposing what is really going on in Washington these days requires reporting beyond the latest misstep or tweet from the president, says Copps. For him, it’s the pervasive influence of corporate cash that really matters.

“I think there is that right-wing, pro-business, invisible hand ideology, and then there’s just the unabashed and unprecedented and disgusting level of money in politics,” Copps said. “I don’t blame just the Republicans; the Democrats are just about as beholden to it, too.”

Pai is a True Believer

Copps believes Pai is a true believer of an ideology that regulations do more harm than good.

“He has this Weltanschauung [world view] or whatever you want to call it that is so out of step with modern politics and where we should be in the history of this country that it’s potentially extremely destructive,” Copps said. “And Michael O’Rielly, the other Republican commissioner, is about the same. He’s an ideologue, too.”

“The problem is that Republicans inside the Beltway are joined in lockstep opposition on almost all these issues, and the level of partisanship, lobbying, big money, and ideology have thus far been insurmountable obstacles,” said Copps. “But I believe if members of Congress spent more time at home, holding more town hall meetings, they would quickly learn that many, many of their constituents are on the pro-consumer, pro-citizen side of these issues.”

Copps is worried that prior mergers set precedents for even larger ones, and the ongoing consolidation of the media and telecom industry is only going to get worse under the Trump Administration.

“I don’t know how long you can let this go on. How long can you open the bazaar to all this consolidation, how much can you encourage all this commercialization, how much can you ignore public media until you get to the point of no return where you can’t really fix it anymore,” Copps asked. “And I also think that the national discourse on the future of the internet has really suffered while we play ping pong with Net Neutrality; one group comes in, does this, the other group, comes in and reverses it, boom, boom, boom. And Net Neutrality is not the salvation or the solution to all of the problems of the internet. As you know, it’s kind of the opening thing you have to have, it lays a foundation where we can build a truly open internet.”

“It’s all about the ideology, the world of big money, the access that the big guys have and continue to have,” Copps concluded. “It’s not that the FCC outright refuses to let public interest groups through the door or anything like that; it’s just the lack of resources citizens and public interest groups have compared to what the big guys have. The public interest groups don’t have much of a chance, but I think they’ve done a pretty good job given the lack of resources.”

What Should the Public Do?

“Figure out how you really make this a grass-roots effort — and not just people writing, in but people doing more than that,” Copps advised. “In July, we will have a day devoted to internet action, so stay tuned on that. In addition, as Bill Moyers says, ‘If you can sing, sing. If you can write a poem, write a poem.’ Different initiatives attract different audiences, so whatever you can do, do. John Oliver made a huge difference in getting us to Net Neutrality and now he’s helping again. If you went up to the Hill right after that first John Oliver show on Net Neutrality [in 2014], you saw immediately that it made a difference with the members and the staff. There’s no one silver bullet, no “do this” and it suddenly happens. You just have to do whatever you can do to get people excited and organized. It’s as simple as that.”

Charter Forced to Set Aside $13 Million for Failing to Meet Merger Commitments to New York State

The New York State Department of Public Service today announced it had reached a potential settlement with Charter Communications after the company failed to meet its rural broadband expansion obligation outlined in last year’s approval of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

“The [Public Service] Commission conditioned its approval of the merger on Charter’s agreement to undertake several types of investments and other activities,” said Department interim CEO Gregg C. Sayre. “While Charter is delivering on many of them, it failed to expand the reach of its network to un-served and under-served communities and commercial customers in the time allotted.”

While Charter’s merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks won rubber-stamp approval in almost every state where it operates, New York regulators required the merger to directly benefit the state’s consumers. The company must upgrade customers to 100Mbps service by the end of 2018 and offer at least 300Mbps statewide by the end of 2019. But it must also expand its cable network to reach 145,000 unserved and underserved homes and businesses within the next four years. The merger approval agreement set a schedule to begin network expansion as quickly as possible.

Charter failed to achieve its obligations, only reaching 15,164 of the 36,250 customers it was required to reach one year after the merger deal was approved.

As a result, regulators have penalized Charter, requiring it to pay an extra $1 million in grants for computer equipment and internet access targeting low-income New York residents and set aside $12 million in escrow as a security pledge to meet all of its network expansion commitments going forward. The company now agrees it will complete its build out obligation in six increments of 21,646 customers through May 18, 2020. Charter will forfeit a portion of the $12 million each time it misses a deadline. The amount lost will depend on the percentage of the target missed and whether the company demonstrates it has completed necessary tasks to expand service. If the company manages to meet its deadlines going forward, it has the right to earn back some or all of its security pledge.

Charter has also agreed to develop a communications plan within 60 days of the settlement’s execution to inform New Yorkers whether they are part of the build-out plan.

The settlement offer will issued for public comment, and will require final Commission approval to take effect.

Wall Street’s Sprint/T-Mobile Merger Drum Circle

Wall Street wants a deal between T-Mobile and Sprint rich with fees and “synergies,” but nobody counting the money cares whether consumers will actually get better service or lower prices as a result of another wireless industry merger.

Recently, more players have entered the T-Mo/Sprint Drum Circle, seeming in favor of the merger of America’s third and fourth largest wireless carriers. Moody’s Investor Service wouldn’t go as far as Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure in playing up the deal’s “synergy savings” won from cutting duplicate costs (especially jobs) after the merger, but was willing to say the combination of the two companies could cut their combined costs by $3 billion or more annually. Based on earlier mergers, most savings would come from eliminating redundant cell sites, winning better volume pricing on handsets, dramatic cuts in employees and back office operations, and spectrum sharing.

“Imagine if you had a supercharged maverick now going after AT&T and Verizon to stop this duopoly,” Claure told an audience in Miami.

Wells Fargo called Sprint’s large spectrum holdings in the 2.5GHz band undervalued, and could be an important part of any transaction.

Sprint has more high-band spectrum than any other carrier in the U.S. Much maligned for its inability to penetrate well indoors and for its reduced coverage area, most carriers have not prioritized use of these frequencies. But forthcoming 5G networks, likely to offer a wireless alternative to wired home broadband, will dominate high frequency spectrum, leaving Sprint in excellent condition to participate in the 5G splash yet to come.

Wall Street banks can expect a small fortune in fees advising both companies on a merger deal and to assist in arranging its financing. Any deal will likely be worth more than the $39 billion AT&T was willing to pay for T-Mobile back in 2011. With that kind of money at stake, any merger announcement will likely be followed by millions in spending to lobby for its approval. Washington regulators ultimately rejected AT&T’s 2011 buyout, arguing it was anti-competitive. Reducing the U.S. marketplace to three national cellular networks is likely to again raise concerns that reduced competition will lead to higher prices.

A merger is also likely to be disruptive to customers, particularly because Sprint and T-Mobile run very different operations and systems. Moody’s predicted it could take up to five years for any merger to fully consummate, giving AT&T and Verizon considerable lead time to bolster their networks and offerings. Moody’s notes Sprint also has a history with bad merger deals, notably its acquisition of Nextel, which proved to be a distracting nightmare.

“If [another merger] stalls or is derailed by operational missteps, the downside is catastrophic,” Moody’s noted.

Lexington, Ky.: “What Abuse Will Be Heaped On Us Next by Charter/Spectrum”

Lexington, Ky. officials are mad as hell about some of the sales and customer service tactics heaped on the local citizenry courtesy of Charter Communications, better loathed as “Spectrum.”

In a letter released yesterday, Lexington’s chief administrative officer Sally Hamilton told the cable company her office mail is running hot and a lot of it is from local residents furious about Charter’s business practices and pricing.

The city now wants Charter officials to turn over company records detailing customer complaints and attend a public hearing to discuss the cable company’s performance since taking over for Time Warner Cable.

Lexington officials are also unhappy that Charter recently laid off 56 customer service employees in its local office.

“The city is left wondering what abuse will be heaped upon it next by Charter-Spectrum,” the letter said. “Because of the public urgency regarding Charter’s actions regarding its Spectrum service, we insist on a swift response to this letter,” Hamilton added.

The Herald-Leader obtained copies of earlier correspondence between the city and the cable company detailing its response to accusations of “shoddy customer service.”

Local residents are unhappy that Charter has dramatically raised rates, shows an unwillingness to negotiate over its pricing, and has removed a number of channels from Spectrum’s basic cable lineup.

The cable company has also been accused of aggressive sales techniques, including using door-to-door agents to browbeat mentally and developmentally impaired people into signing up for cable service, even though they are legally not able to sign contracts. The city is demanding to know how many times that has happened.

Charter is also accused of preventing customers from talking to supervisors, lowering advertised broadband speeds, and no longer accepting returned cable equipment through the mail.

Charter’s June 5 letter assured the city that “quality customer service is of the utmost importance to Charter,” and claimed the company was in the process of spending $3.1 million on local improvements, including 860 new outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots, and low-cost internet access for the poor.

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