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Verizon’s Idea of a “Modest Rate Increase” in New Jersey: 440%; $15 Billion Collected for Phantom Fiber

Verizon-logoWhile the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities was able to quickly settle its differences with Verizon by granting the phone company’s wish to walk away from its commitment to offer 45Mbps broadband across the state, New Jersey ratepayers are out $15 billion in excess phone charges levied since 1993 for promised upgrades many will never get.

The Opportunity New Jersey plan the state government signed with Verizon was supposed to expand advanced broadband across the state in return for “a modest amount of pricing flexibility” in the fees Verizon charged customers in New Jersey. But Verizon is not a modest company and a new report shows the phone company used the agreement to boost rates as much as 440% — primarily through ancillary surcharges including inside wire maintenance, wire investment, an investment recovery fee, a local number portability surcharge, merged local calling area charge, and various other charges for phone features including Caller ID, Call Waiting, etc.

Tom Allibone, the president of LTC Consulting joined forces with New Networks’ Bruce Kushnick to analyze more than 30 years of Verizon New Jersey phone bills and discovered when it comes to tallying up rate increases, Verizon’s addition skills are akin to taking out a bag of M&M’s and only counting the yellow ones.

“This Verizon New Jersey bill from April 2002 [...] has an “FCC Subscriber Line Charge”, which was $6.21 cents per line. Verizon’s quote doesn’t include this charge in their analysis of no increases between 1985 to 2008,” Kushnick writes. “The FCC Line Charge (it has many names), is on every local phone bill and the charge started in 1985. You can’t get service without paying this charge and the money does NOT go to fund the FCC but is direct revenue to Verizon New Jersey.”

verizonnjrateincreaseAfter adding up various other surcharges, Kushnick’s bill increased a lot.

“Add up the ‘Total Monthly Charges’ for 2 phone lines— It’s ugly,” Kushnick said. “While the cost of the ‘monthly charges’ was $25.62, there’s an extra $17.70 cents — 70%. I thought that Verizon said there were no ‘increases.’”

“Anyone who has ever bought a bundled package of services from Verizon (or the other phone or cable companies) knows that they all play this shell game; the price of service you have to pay is always 10-40% more than the advertised price. That’s because the companies leave out the cost of these ancillary charges and taxes in their sale pitch,” he added.

Verizon raised local residential service rates 79% in 2008, according to Kushnick. Business customers paid 70 percent more. Caller ID rates increased 38% — remarkable for a service that has a profit margin of 5,695%. But Verizon did even better boosting the charge for a non-published number by 38% — a service that has a 36,900% profit margin as of 1999 — the services are even cheaper to offer now.

Telephone service is one of those products that should have declined in price, especially after phone companies fully depreciated their copper wire networks — long ago paid off. Companies like Verizon have cut the budgets for outdoor wire maintenance and the number of employees tasked with keeping service up and running has been reduced by over 70 percent since 1985, dramatically reducing Verizon’s costs. But Verizon customers paid more for phone service, not less.

The cost of service might not have been as much of an issue had Verizon taken the excess funds and invested them in promised upgrades, but that has not happened for a significant percentage of the state and likely never will. Instead, they just increased company profits. More recently, Verizon has directed much of its investments into its more profitable wireless division.

Even though Verizon achieved total victory with the Christie Administration-dominated BPU, the company is still making threats about any future plans for investment.

“It’s important that regulators and legislators support public policies that encourage broadband growth in New Jersey rather than ones that could jeopardize the state’s highly competitive communications industry, or risk future investments by providers like Verizon,” wrote Sam Delgado, vice president of external affairs.

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New York Governor Orders Thorough Regulatory Review of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Cuomo

Cuomo

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has ordered the New York State Public Service to immediately start a thorough and detailed investigation into Comcast’s proposed purchase of Time Warner Cable, using new regulatory powers to reject any merger not in the “best interest” of Time Warner’s customers in New York.

“The State is taking a hands-on review of this merger to ensure that New Yorkers benefit,” Cuomo said. “The Public Service Commission’s actions will help protect consumers by demanding company commitments to strong service quality, affordability, and availability.”

New York implemented one of the nation’s strongest cable franchise laws in April that will now require the two cable operators to prove that any merger is in the public interest. An earlier law backed by the telecom industry put the burden of proof on the Commission to prove such transactions were not beneficial to the public.

Cuomo has requested the PSC check how the proposed merger will expand broadband in under-served areas and offer better broadband access to schools. The PSC will critically review the protections being offered to low income customers as well as how the proposed merger might impact consumer pricing and telecommunication competition overall.

PSC chair Audrey Zibelman said, “To determine whether the proposed transaction is in the public interest, the Commission will examine the proposal to ensure services the merged company would provide will be better than the service customers currently receive.”

comcast twcOne way to prove the merged company would not offer better service is to alert the Commission Comcast plans to reimpose usage caps on its customers while Time Warner Cable does not have any compulsory usage limits or usage billing.

Time Warner now serves 2.6 million subscribers in every major New York community: Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and the boroughs of Manhattan, Staten Island, Queens and parts of Brooklyn.

The PSC is likely to hold public forums across the state in June to hear the views of affected consumers, but the record is now open to written and telephoned comments from anyone interested in the merger.

There are several ways to provide your comments to the Commission. Comments should refer to: “Case 14-M-0183.”

Via the Internet or Mail: The public may send comments electronically to the Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, at [email protected] or by mail or delivery to Secretary Burgess at the New York State Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350. Comments may also be entered directly into the case file by clicking on the “Post Comments” box at the top of the page.

Toll-Free Opinion Line: Individuals may choose to phone in comments by calling the Commission’s Opinion Line at 1 800-335-2120. This line is set up to receive in-state calls 24-hours a day. These calls are not transcribed, but a summary is provided to staff who will report to the Commission.

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United States of AT&T: DirecTV Acquired by AT&T in $48.5 Billion Deal

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ ATT Buys DirecTV 5-19-14.flv

For $48.5 billion, AT&T will vault itself into second place among the nation’s largest pay television providers with the acquisition of DirecTV. The Wall Street Journal reports the executives at AT&T have been looking to for a giant deal for several years. Most executives earn special bonuses and other incentives worth millions for successfully completing these kinds of transactions. (3:03)

AT&T plans to spend $48.5 billion to acquire the nation’s biggest satellite television provider, allowing AT&T to become the second largest pay television company, behind a merged Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

att directvThe deal, finalized on Sunday, pays $95 per DirecTV share in a combination of stock and cash, about a 10% premium over DirecTV’s closing price on Friday. Including debt, the acquisition is AT&T’s third-largest deal on record, behind the purchase of BellSouth for $83 billion in 2006 and the deal for Ameritech Corp., which closed in 1999, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“This is a unique opportunity that will redefine the video entertainment industry and create a company able to offer new bundles and deliver content to consumers across multiple screens – mobile devices, TVs, laptops, cars and even airplanes. At the same time, it creates immediate and long-term value for our shareholders,” said Randall Stephenson, AT&T chairman and CEO. “DirecTV is the best option for us because they have the premier brand in pay TV, the best content relationships, and a fast-growing Latin American business. DirecTV is a great fit with AT&T and together we’ll be able to enhance innovation and provide customers new competitive choices for what they want in mobile, video and broadband services. We look forward to welcoming DirecTV’s talented people to the AT&T family.”

The announced acquisition has left some on Wall Street scratching their heads.

“Like any merger born of necessity rather than opportunity, the combination of AT&T and DirecTV calls to mind images of lifeboats and rescues at sea,” telecommunications analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research wrote this week. AT&T, Moffett wrote, is in “dire need of a cash producer to sustain their dividend.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT DirecTV Deal a Head Scratcher 5-19-14.flv

Craig Moffett, founder of MoffettNathanson LLC, talks about AT&T Inc.’s plan to buy DirecTV for $48.5 billion. Moffett speaks with Tom Keene, Scarlet Fu, William Cohan, and Adam Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance.” StockTwits founder Howard Lindzon also speaks. (5:12)

pay market shareThe deal would combine AT&T’s wireless, U-verse, and broadband networks with DirecTV’s television service, creating bundling opportunities for some satellite customers. As broadband becomes the most important component of a package including phone, television, and Internet access, not being able to offer broadband has left satellite TV companies at a competitive disadvantage. AT&T’s U-verse platform – a fiber to the neighborhood network – has given AT&T customers an incremental broadband speed upgrade, but not one that can necessarily compete against fiber to the home or cable broadband.

Some analysts are speculating AT&T will eventually shut down its U-verse television service and dedicate its bandwidth towards a more robust broadband offering. Existing television customers would be offered DirecTV instead.

But deal critics contend AT&T is spending a lot of money to buy its competitors instead of investing enough in network upgrades.

“The amount of cash alone AT&T is spending on this deal — $14.55 billion — is as much as it cost Verizon for its entire FiOS deployment, which reaches more than 17 million homes,” Free Press’ Derek Turner tells Stop the Cap! “Add in the $33 billion in AT&T stock and $18.6 billion in debt, and you can see just how wasteful this merger is.”

In effect, AT&T is spending nearly $50 billion to buy DirecTV’s customer relationships, its satellite platform, and its agreements with programmers, all while removing one competitor from the market. Cable has 54 percent of the pay TV market, satellite has 34 percent, and AT&T and Verizon share 11 percent. AT&T’s U-verse has 5.7 million TV customers. DirecTV has 20.3 million. Combining the two gives AT&T 26 million television customers, second only to Comcast/Time Warner Cable.

Rural Americans will effectively see their choice in competitors drop by one-third, giving them the option of the phone company or Dish Network.

AT&T intends to persuade regulators to approve the deal despite its antitrust implications by offering several commitments the company says are in the public interest and protect consumers:

  • 15 Million Customer Locations Get More High Speed Broadband Competition. AT&T will use the merger synergies to expand its plans to build and enhance high-speed broadband service to 15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas where AT&T does not provide high-speed broadband service today, utilizing a combination of technologies including fiber to the premises and fixed wireless local loop capabilities. This new commitment, to be completed within four years after close, is on top of the fiber and Project VIP broadband expansion plans AT&T has already announced. Customers will be able to buy broadband service stand-alone or as part of a bundle with other AT&T services.
  • Stand-Alone Broadband. For customers who only want a broadband service and may choose to consume video through an over-the-top (OTT) service like Netflix or Hulu, the combined company will offer stand-alone wireline broadband service at speeds of at least 6Mbps (where feasible) in areas where AT&T offers wireline IP broadband service today at guaranteed prices for three years after closing.
  • Nationwide Package Pricing on DIRECTV. DIRECTV’s TV service will continue to be available on a stand-alone basis at nationwide package prices that are the same for all customers, no matter where they live, for at least three years after closing.
  • Net Neutrality Commitment. Continued commitment for three years after closing to the FCC’s Open Internet protections established in 2010, irrespective of whether the FCC re-establishes such protections for other industry participants following the DC Circuit Court of Appeals vacating those rules.
  • Spectrum Auction. The transaction does not alter AT&T’s plans to meaningfully participate in the FCC’s planned spectrum auctions later this year and in 2015. AT&T intends to bid at least $9 billion in connection with the 2015 incentive auction provided there is sufficient spectrum available in the auction to provide AT&T a viable path to at least a 2×10 MHz nationwide spectrum footprint.

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http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN ATT DirecTV Merger 5-19-14.flv

CNN says AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV is about getting video programming to customers using all types of technology, but public interest groups suspect it’s about reducing competition. (1:17)

A closer look at AT&T’s commitments exposes several loopholes, however.

AT&T U-verse and DirecTV compete head-on in these areas.

AT&T U-verse and DirecTV compete head-on in these areas.

  • AT&T’s “commitment” to expand broadband to 15 million new locations is in addition to their Project VIP U-verse expansion now underway. However, AT&T does not say how many rural customers will see wired U-verse service finally become available vs. how many will lose their landlines permanently and have to rely on AT&T’s wireless landline replacement and expensive, usage-capped wireless broadband;
  • AT&T’s speed commitment is largely unenforceable and falls apart with language like, “where feasible.” Anywhere they don’t deliver 6Mbps DSL speed can easily be explained away as “unfeasible.” AT&T also only commits to providing DSL where it already offers DSL, so no expansion there;
  • The FCC’s Net Neutrality protections never covered wireless and three years is a very short time to commit to the “light touch” approach the FCC had with Net Neutrality back in 2010;
  • AT&T’s wireless auction commitment comes with loopholes like “meaningfully,” “provided there,” and “a viable path to at least.”

“You can’t justify AT&T buying DirecTV by pointing at Comcast’s grab for Time Warner, because neither one is a good deal for consumers,” said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “On the heels of Comcast’s bid for Time Warner Cable, AT&T is going to try to pull off a mega-merger of its own. These could be the start of a wave of mergers that should put federal regulators on high alert.  AT&T’s takeover of DirecTV is just the latest attempt at consolidation in a marketplace where consumers are already saddled with lousy service and price hikes. The rush is on for some of the biggest industry players to get even bigger, with consumers left on the losing end.”

“The captains of our communications industry have clearly run out of ideas,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. “Instead of innovating and investing in their networks, companies like AT&T and Comcast are simply buying up the competition. These takeovers are expensive, and consumers end up footing the bill for merger mania. AT&T is willing to pay $48.5 billion and take on an additional $19 billion in debt to buy DirecTV. That’s a fortune to spend on a satellite-only company at a time when the pay-TV industry is stagnating and broadband is growing. For the amount of money and debt AT&T and Comcast are collectively shelling out for their respective mega-deals, they could deploy super-fast gigabit-fiber broadband service to every single home in America.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Al Franken Skeptical About DirecTV Deal 5-19-14.flv

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) appeared on CNN’s New Day this morning to express his skepticism about the consumer benefits of a merger between AT&T and DirecTV. “We need more competition, not less.” (2:40)

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Wall Street: Telecom Mergers Are Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Consumers: More Pocket-Picking

price-gouging-cake“Comcast Corp.’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. may be the opening act for a yearlong festival of telecommunications deals that would alter Internet, phone and TV service for tens of millions of Americans.” — Bloomberg News, May 14, 2014

Wall Street analysts remain certain Comcast and Time Warner Cable won’t be the only merger on the table this year as the $45 billion dollar deal is expected to spark a new wave of consolidation, further reducing competitive choice in telecom services for most Americans.

While the industry continues to insist that the current foundation of deregulation is key to investment and competition, the reality on the ground is less certain.

Let’s review history:

For several decades, the cable industry has avoided head-on competition with other cable operators. They argue the costs of “overbuilding” cable systems into territories already serviced by another company is financially impractical and reckless. But that did not stop telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon from overhauling portions of their networks to compete, and in at least some communities another provider has emerged to offer some competition. Some wonder if AT&T was willing to spend billions to upgrade their urban landline network to provide U-verse, why won’t cable companies spend some money and compete directly with one another?

The answer is simple: They can earn a lot more by limiting competition.

When only a few firms account for most of the sales of a product, those firms can sometimes exercise market power by either explicitly or implicitly coordinating their actions. Coordinated interaction is especially suspect where all firms seem to charge very similar prices and few, if any, are willing to challenge the status quo.

Since the 1980s, the telecommunications industry has been deregulated off and on to a degree not seen since the pioneer days of telephone service. That was the era when waves of mergers created near-monopolies in the oil, railroad, energy, tobacco, steel and sugar industries. By the late 1890s, evidence piled up that proved reducing the number of providers in a market leads to higher prices and poor service. The abuses eventually led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and later the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

The generation of political leaders that dominated Washington during the 1980s developed selective amnesia about economic history and dismantled many of the regulatory protections established to protect consumers, arguing competition would keep markets in check. In the broadband and cable business, that has not proved as successful as the industry represents.

At the heart of the problem is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The sweeping law is littered with lobbyist landmines for consumers and their interests. Under the guise of increasing competition, the 1996 law actually helped reduce competition by removing regulatory oversight and, perhaps unintentionally, sparking an enormous rampage of industry consolidation followed by price increases. The Bush Administration kept the war on consumers going with the appointment of Michael Powell (now the CEO of the cable industry’s lobbying group) to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Under Powell, non-discriminatory access to networks by competitors was curtailed, and Powell’s FCC gave carte blanche to the cable industry’s plan to cluster its territories into large regional monopolies and a tight national oligopoly. The FCC’s own researchers quietly admitted in the early 2000s “clustering raised prices.”

Cable prices

By January 2001, cable operators had settled on rate increases that averaged three times the rate of inflation. While the national inflation rate hovered around 1%, cable companies routinely raised basic cable rates an average of 7% annually. Powell declared rising cable rates were not a consumer problem and adopted the industry’s classic talking point that rate increases reflect the “value of the programming” found on cable. In fact, even as cable customers grew increasingly angry about rate increases, Powell told three different reporters he wanted to further relax the FCC’s involvement in cable pricing. (McClintock, Pamela, “Powell: No Cable Coin Crisis” Variety, April 30, 2001; Hearn, Ted. “Powell: Value Matters in Cable Rates,” Multichannel News, March 13, 2002; Powell Press Conference, February 8, 2001; Dreazen, Yochi. “FCC Chairman Signals Change, Plans to Limit Intervention,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2001.)

cost_broadband_around_the_world_v2Economists reviewing data found in publicly available corporate balance sheets soon found evidence that the “increased programming costs”-excuse for rate increases did not hold water. The less competition or number of choices available to consumers in the market unambiguously lead to higher prices. It has remained true since Consumers’ Union revealed the financial trickery in 2003:

The cable industry will claim that programming costs are driving prices up. While programming costs have certainly risen, a close look at the numbers shows that rising program costs account for only a small part of the rising rates.

If costs were really the cause of rising prices, then the cable industries’ operating margins – the difference between its revenues and costs — would not be rising. The facts are just the opposite. Operating margins have been increasing dramatically since 1997. The operating margin for the industry as a whole will reach $18.8 billion per year in 2002, $7 billion more than it was in 1997. Operating revenues per subscriber have increased dramatically over that period, from $208 per year to $273. That is, after taking out all the operating costs, including programming costs, cable operators have increased their take per subscriber by over 30 percent.

[...] The ability of cable operators to raise rates and increase revenues, even with rising programming costs, stems from the market power they have at the point of sale. They would not be able to raise prices and pass program price increases through if they did not have monopoly power.

Consumers’ Union also foreshadows what will happen if another wave of industry consolidation takes hold the way it did over a decade earlier:

While the cable industry has certainly increased capital expenditures to upgrade its plants, it has actually sunk a lot more capital into another activity – mergers and acquisitions.

It is the outrageous prices that have been paid to buy each other out and consolidate the industry that is helping to drive the rate increases. Between 1998, when the first mega merger between cable operators was announced, and 2001, when the last big merger was announced, cable companies spent over a quarter of a trillion dollars buying each other out. In those four years, they spent almost six times as much on mergers and acquisitions as they did on capital expenditures to upgrade their systems. At the same time, the average price paid per subscriber more than doubled.

countries_with_high_speed_broadbandWhen a cable operator pays such an outrageous price, the previous owner is reaping the financial rewards of his monopoly power. The acquiring company can only pay such a high price by assuming that his monopoly power will allow him to continue to increase prices. Monopoly power is being bought and sold and borrowed against. The new cable operator, who has paid for market power, may insist that the debt he has incurred to obtain it is a real cost on his books. That may be correct in the literal sense (he owes someone that money) but that does not make it right, or the abuse of market power legal.

Fast-forwarding to 2014, economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy said the same basic economic truths still exist today with Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

“My concern is the merger and the consolidation of the cable and internet delivery system for consumers and what will happen to internet and cable rates and choices,” Maxcy said, voicing his hesitancy about a deal that merges the nation’s two largest cable providers. “As that industry has gotten more consolidated over time, we have seen rates go up. The answer from them is that we’ve got more choices. Are we better off or not better off? I don’t know, but certainly rates have gone up at a much faster rate than the inflation rate. The result of more monopoly power is always higher prices and less choices and it seems that this merger moves in that direction.”

“The threat from non-network content providers is a concern for the cable industry,” Maxcy added.

“We’re moving to a situation where we don’t need cable, but we still need the internet and the cable companies are the ones that have control of that,” he said. “Consolidating them together makes them more competitive against the outside forces, but the other argument makes the whole thing less competitive so they’ll have more ability to control the access to Netflix, YouTube and the like. People that may develop other similar sorts of services will have a hard time getting the access they would like to purchase those.”

Chris Stigall spoke with economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia about Comcast’s attempt to purchase Time Warner Cable and what that means for consumers. Feb. 18, 2014 (12:10)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

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Comcast: Usage-Based Billing for All Customers Within 5 Years; ‘We’re Also Allowed to Do Fast Lanes’

comcast highwayComcast will introduce usage-based billing on all of its broadband customers nationwide within five years, whether they like it or not.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen told Variety he predicts the new usage limit will likely be 350GB a month but could increase to 500GB in 2019. Cohen claims consumers in usage-capped test markets prefer a preset usage limit and an overlimit fee of $10 for each additional 50GB of usage.

But Stop the Cap! has learned at no time has Comcast surveyed customers about whether they want their Internet usage metered or capped. That question is evidently not an option.

If Time Warner Cable territories are merged under the Comcast brand, usage billing would likely immediately follow.

Usage caps will go a long way to protect Comcast’s cable television package from online video, which if viewed in significant amounts could put customers over their monthly usage limit and subject them to higher fees.

“We’re trying to go slowly, not out of a regulatory concern (but because) we have no desire to blow up our high-speed data business,” he said.

cohenIf the merger is approved, Comcast will face significantly less competition in many Verizon service areas also served by Time Warner Cable. Verizon FiOS expansion has ended and the company continues to de-emphasize its DSL service, which is the only broadband competition Time Warner Cable faces in many upstate New York and western Massachusetts communities.

An unrepentant Cohen also doubled down on paid prioritization — Internet fast lanes — declaring regardless of what the FCC decides on Net Neutrality, Comcast still has the right to offer paid prioritization to customers.

“Whatever it is, we are allowed to do it,” said Cohen, speaking at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in New York. “We are not sure we know what paid prioritization, or what a fast lane, is. Fast lane sounds bad… (but) I believe that whatever it is, it has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years.”

The way Comcast’s lawyers read “Title II,” even if the FCC declares broadband ISPs to be common carriers, Cohen says Comcast will go right on selling prioritized access, claiming Title II doesn’t prohibit paid prioritization — indeed, he said, “the whole history” of Title II is that carriers are allowed to provide different levels of service at different prices, reports Variety.

Cohen said he expects Washington regulators will promptly approve the company’s buyout of Time Warner Cable with no delays, insisting the deal is “not that difficult” in terms of antitrust implications.

 

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Public Service Commission to N.Y. Towns: You Have No Negotiating Leverage Over Time Warner Cable

rensselaer countyRensselaer County is just a short drive to the east of New York’s capital city Albany, but for residents in the southern half of the county, it might as be in the middle of nowhere.

Welcome to the world of broadband have’s and have-nots. If you live in the county seat — Troy, Internet access is widely available. But if you live in a community like Nassau, in the southern part of the county, getting Internet access is strictly a hit or miss affair, and in practical terms, the only entity that will decide if you have reasonable access to broadband is Time Warner Cable.

Verizon has decided that the days of expanding DSL in rural areas are over. There is no possibility those without access to DSL now will ever see Verizon’s fiber network FiOS coming their way either. That has left many residents with an unfortunate choice between heavily usage-capped and slow satellite Internet access or heavily usage-capped and expensive wireless Internet from a cell phone company.

Nassau does have a franchise agreement with Time Warner Cable, the only cable operator willing to offer service in this part of upstate New York. The contract specifies Time Warner will bring service to any neighborhood where there are at least 20 residences within a one-mile radius.

The Record News covered negotiations for a franchise renewal for the cable company last year, and found Time Warner Cable held all the cards and the town had almost no leverage in the negotiations:

A rare sight in southern Renssalear County.

A rare sight in southern Rensselaer County.

“We really have no negotiating leverage or power and the Public Service Commission (PSC) was helpful in looking at the contract, but told us we were basically out of luck with any efforts to require anything,” said town Supervisor David Fleming, who said he was told by Time Warner Cable that specific areas in Nassau are “not currently serviceable.”

The town had marked out all the areas that were not served and met with Time Warner to try to gain extensions of service.

“This only succeeded in a couple of areas,” he said. “This is because PSC told us we have no bargaining power. The only big concession we were able to get was to reduce the number of houses per mile needed for service, but this was a pretty standard fall back for Time Warner.”

The town succeeded in negotiating standards down to 20 dwellings per cable mile from 30. “We continue to explore this matter, but frankly, there has been a great deal of unwillingness to expand service in our community,” Fleming said. “The state has been of no help in expanding services.”

As a result, Time Warner has been generally adamant about not expanding service to residents like Alan Austin, who lives on a street where 11 houses are built within a half-mile, technically the same ratio required by Time Warner Cable.

Rensselaer sign“We’ve asked them to bring the service and they won’t,” Austin told the newspaper.

Actually, Time Warner is willing to expand into Austin’s neighborhood — for the right price.

Time Warner agreed it would install cable service if the 11 homes collectively paid a $12,000 installation fee.

“We’re out of luck because we’re never going to get another nine houses in this mile,” Austin said. “We can’t get anybody to bring service here, unless we’re willing to pay an exorbitant amount.”

As for alternatives, don’t call Verizon, they’ll call you. The phone company has suggested rural residents consider their wireless broadband and phone service, assuming a cell tower can reach them with a reasonable signal. But the cost is very high — at least $50 for only 4GB of usage per month and another $20 for telephone service.

Austin is lucky enough to receive some reception from Sprint, which is slightly more reasonably priced. But to get a reliable signal, he has to place his mobile Wi-Fi hotspot in his non-climate-controlled attic. When temperatures fall or soar, the hotspot stops working. Austin has rigged a remote-powered fan in the attic to blow cool air on the hotspot this summer to keep it up and running.

“It’s ridiculous,” he admitted. “People don’t believe me when I tell them these things, but that’s what we deal with.”

The newspaper also pondered the impact of being an Internet have-not with respect to education. In more than a few communities in the county, teachers avoid giving assignments that require students to do research over the Internet, putting them at a potentially serious disadvantage when they attend college.

Businesses also avoid areas where broadband poses a significant challenge, which affects jobs. Selling a home in a broadband blackout zone can also be difficult as savvy buyers increasingly now insist on Internet accessibility.

Without the benefit of bundling discounts, rural Americans pay substantially higher prices for telecommunications services. A promotional bundle from Time Warner Cable can provide phone, Internet, and television service for less than $100 a month. Austin says his package costs more than twice that — more than $220 monthly between paying bills for Verizon phone service, DirectTV television and Sprint for broadband Internet.

These kinds of challenges are ready-made to be addressed on the local government level, but cable and phone companies lobbied successfully for near-total deregulation, making it impossible for town officials to provoke change. In fact, had the community successfully revoked Time Warner Cable’s franchise, no other commercial provider would be willing to step in. That remains common in every community considering its future relationship with the area’s cable company. An informal understanding between cable operators keep them from competing outside of their defined territories.

That leaves Nassau officials with no options, except whether to renew Time Warner’s franchise on the company’s terms for five or ten years. Time Warner wouldn’t hear of a five-year contract so the town capitulated and agreed to a 10-year franchise renewal that will continue to leave residents like Austin without much hope for cable broadband service indefinitely.

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Big Telecom Threatens Investment Apocalypse if FCC Enacts Strong Net Neutrality

bfaMost of the same telecom companies that want to create Internet paid fast lanes, drag their feet on delivering 21st century broadband speeds, refuse t0 wire rural areas for broadband without government compensation, and have cut investment in broadband expansion are warning that any attempt by the FCC to enact strong Net Neutrality policies will “threaten new investment in broadband infrastructure and jeopardize the spread of broadband technology across America, holding back Internet speeds and ultimately deepening the digital divide.”

Twenty-eight CEOs of some of the same cable and phone companies that have fueled the fight for Net Neutrality protections by their actions signed a letter published on the website of the industry-funded astroturf group Broadband for America.

“An open Internet is central to how America’s broadband providers operate their networks, and the undersigned broadband providers remain fully committed to openness going forward,” says the letter. “We are equally committed to working with the Commission to find a sustainable path to a lawful regulatory framework for protecting the open Internet during the course of the rulemaking you are launching this week.”

Ironically, some of the same companies signing the letter earlier successfully sued the Federal Communications Commission to overturn Net Neutrality policies the agency attempted to enact under a lighter regulatory framework.

The industry now fears the FCC will reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which makes the service subject to oversight far less likely to successfully be overturned in the courts.

That has caused a panic in the boardrooms of some of America’s largest phone and cable companies.

“In recent days, we have witnessed a concerted publicity campaign by some advocacy groups seeking sweeping government regulation that conflates the need for an open Internet with the purported need to reclassify broadband Internet access services as Title II telecommunications services subject to common carrier regulation,” the letter says.

signers1

Part of the Problem?: The CEOs that signed the letter.

 

The companies warn that any attempt to rein in the largely unregulated broadband industry would be a major disaster for the U.S. economy and further broadband expansion:

Broadband investment is falling even without Net Neutrality.

Broadband investment is falling even without Net Neutrality.

Not only is it questionable that the Commission could defensibly reclassify broadband service under Title II, but also such an action would greatly distort the future development of, and investment in, tomorrow’s broadband networks and services. America’s economic future, as envisioned by President Obama and congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle, critically depends on continued investment and innovation in our broadband infrastructure and app economy to drive improvements in health care, education and energy. Under Title II, new service offerings, options, and features would be delayed or altogether foregone. Consumers would face less choice, and a less adaptive and responsive Internet. An era of differentiation, innovation, and experimentation would be replaced with a series of ―Government may I? requests from American entrepreneurs. That cannot be, and must not become, the U.S. Internet of tomorrow.

Net Neutrality advocates point out that even without Net Neutrality, broadband investment has fallen in the United States for several years, a point conceded by some cable operators.

In 2010, Suddenlink CEO Jerry Kent explained cable companies are now taking profits now that they don’t have to spend as much on upgrades.

“I think one of the things people don’t realize [relates to] the question of capital intensity and having to keep spending to keep up with capacity,” Kent said. “Those days are basically over, and you are seeing significant free cash flow generated from the cable operators as our capital expenditures continue to come down.”

“We should seek out a path forward together,” suggests the CEOs. “All affected stakeholders need and want certainty and an end to a decade of legal and political wrangling.”

It may prove difficult for observers to take the CEOs seriously considering the litigation record on broadband oversight and regulation. The largest cable and phone companies have repeatedly sued to overturn policies that do not meet with their full approval, something likely to happen again if these giant providers don’t get exactly what they want.

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FCC Chairman Promises “New and Improved” Net Neutrality Proposal That Is More of the Same

Phillip "Section 706 is a road to nowhere" Dampier

Phillip “Section 706 is a road to nowhere” Dampier

After thousands of consumers joined more than 100 Internet companies and two of five commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission to complain about Chairman Tom Wheeler’s vision of Net Neutrality, the head of the FCC claims he has revised his proposal to better enforce Internet traffic equality.

Last week, huge online companies like Amazon, eBay, and Facebook jointly called Wheeler’s ideas of Net Neutrality “a grave threat to the Internet.”

In response over the weekend, an official close to the chairman leaked word to the Wall Street Journal that Wheeler was changing his proposal. Despite that, a closer examination of Wheeler’s ideas continues to show his unwavering faith in providers voluntarily behaving themselves. Wheeler’s evolving definition of Net Neutrality is fine… if you live in OppositeLand. His proposal would allow Internet Service Providers and content companies to negotiate paid traffic prioritization agreements — the exact opposite of Net Neutrality — allowing certain Internet traffic to race to the front of the traffic line.

Such an idea is a non-starter among Net Neutrality advocates, precisely because it undermines a core principle of the Open Internet — discriminating for or against certain web traffic because of a paid arrangement creates an unfair playing field likely to harm Internet start-ups and other independent entities that can’t afford the “pay to play” prices ISPs may seek.

Paid traffic prioritization agreements only make business sense when a provider creates the network conditions that require their consideration. If a provider operated a robust network with plenty of capacity, there would be no incentive for such agreements because Internet traffic would have no trouble reaching customers with or without the agreement.

But as Netflix customers saw earlier this year, Comcast and several other cable operators are now in the bandwidth shortage business — unwilling to keep up investments in network upgrades required to allow paying customers to access the Internet content they want.

While there is some argument that the peering agreement between Comcast and Netflix is not a classic case of smashing Net Neutrality, the effect on customers is the same. If a provider refuses to upgrade connections to the Internet without financial compensation from content companies, the Internet slow lane for that content emerges. Message: Sign a paid contract for a better connection and your clogged content will suddenly arrive with ease.

net-neutrality-protestWheeler has ineffectively argued that his proposal to allow these kinds of paid arrangements do not inherently commercially segregate the Internet into fast and slow lanes.

But in fact it will, not by artificially throttling the speeds of deprioritized, non-paying content companies, but by consigning them to increasingly congested broadband pipes that only work in top form for prioritized, first class traffic.

With Wheeler’s philosophy “unchanged” according to the Journal, his defense of his revised Net Neutrality proposal continues to rely on non germane arguments.

For example, Wheeler claims he will make sure the FCC “scrutinizes deals to make sure that the broadband providers don’t unfairly put nonpaying companies’ content at a disadvantage.” But in Wheeler’s World of Net Neutrality, providers would have to blatantly and intentionally throttle traffic to cross the line.

“I won’t allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service,” Mr. Wheeler wrote (emphasis ours) to Google and other companies.

But if your access to YouTube is slow because Google won’t pay Comcast for a direct connection with the cable company, it is doubtful Wheeler’s proposal would ever consider that a clear-cut case of Comcast “forcing” customers into a “slow lane.” After all, Comcast itself isn’t interfering with Netflix traffic, it just isn’t provisioning enough room on its network to accommodate customer demand.

Another side issue nobody has mentioned is usage cap discrimination. Comcast exempts certain traffic from the usage cap it is gradually reintroducing around the country. Its preferred partners can avoid usage-deterring caps while those not aligned with Comcast are left on the meter.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Some equipment manufacturers are producing even more sophisticated traffic management technology that could make it very difficult to identify fast and slow lanes, yet still opens the door to further monetization of Internet usage and performance in favor of a provider’s partners or against their competitors.

With Internet speeds and capacity gradually rising, the need for paid priority traffic agreements should decline, unless providers choose to cut back on upgrades to push another agenda. Already massively profitable, there is no excuse for providers not to incrementally upgrade their networks to meet customer demand. Prices for service have risen, even as the costs of providing the service have dropped overall.

Wheeler seems content to bend over backwards trying to shove a round Net Neutrality framework into a square regulatory black hole. Former chairman Julius Genachowski did the same, pretending that the FCC has oversight authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. But in fact that section is dedicated to expanding broadband access with restricted regulatory powers:

The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms) by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.

The spirit of the 1996 Telecom Act was  deregulation — that language pertaining to “regulatory forbearance” encourages regulators to restrain themselves from reflexively solving every problem with a new regulation. The words about “removing barriers to infrastructure investment” might as well be industry code language for the inevitable talking point: “deregulation removes barriers to investment.”

1nnWith a shaky foundation like that, any effort by the FCC to depend on Section 706 as its enabling authority to oversee the introduction of any significant broadband regulation is a house of cards.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In the Verizon network management case, the court found that the FCC was not allowed to use Section 706 to issue broad regulations that contradicted another part of the Communications Act.

U.S.C. 153(51) was and remains the FCC’s Section 706-Achilles Heel and the judge kicked it. This section of the Act says “a telecommunications carrier shall be treated as a common carrier under this [Act] only to the extent that it is engaged in providing telecommunications services.”

The current president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Michael Powell — coincidentally also former chairman of the FCC under President George W. Bush — helped see to it that broadband was not defined as a “telecommunications service.” Instead, it is considered an “information service” for regulatory purposes. This decision shielded emerging Internet providers (especially big phone and cable companies) from the kinds of traditional telecom utility regulations landline telephone companies lived with for decades. Of course, millions were also spent to lobby the telecom deregulation-friendly Clinton and Bush administrations with the idea to adopt “light touch” broadband regulatory policy. A Republican-dominated FCC had no trouble voluntarily limiting its own authority to oversee broadband by declaring both wired and wireless broadband providers “information services.”

Tom Wheeler is the former president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association

Tom Wheeler is the former president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association

So it was the FCC itself that caused this regulatory mess. But the Supreme Court provided a way out, by declaring it was within the FCC’s own discretion to decide how to regulate broadband, either under Title I as an information service or Title II as a telecommunications service. If the FCC declares broadband as a telecommunications service, the regulatory headaches largely disappear. The FCC has well-tested authority to impose common carrier regulations on providers, including Net Neutrality protections, under Title II.

In fact, the very definition of “common carrier” is tailor-made for Net Neutrality because it generally requires that all customers be offered service on a standardized and non-discriminatory basis, and may include a requirement that those services be priced reasonably.

Inexplicably, Chairman Wheeler last week announced his intention to keep ignoring the straight-line GPS-like directions from the court that would snatch the FCC’s attorneys from the jaws of defeat to victory and has recalculated another proposed trip over Section 706′s mysterious bumpy side streets and dirt roads. Assuming the FCC ever arrives at its destination, it is a sure bet it will be met by attorneys from AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon with yet more lawsuits claiming the FCC has violated their rights by exceeding their authority.

Wheeler also doesn’t mollify anyone with his commitment to set up yet another layer of FCC bureaucracy to protect Internet start-ups:

Mr. Wheeler’s updated draft would also propose a new ombudsman position with ‘significant enforcement authority’ to advocate on behalf of startups, according to one of the officials. The goal would be to ensure all parties have access to the FCC’s process for resolving disputes.

Anyone who has taken a dispute to the FCC knows how fun and exciting a process that is. But even worse than the legal expense and long delays, Wheeler’s excessively ambiguous definitions of what constitutes fair paid prioritization and slow and fast lanes is money in the bank for regulatory litigators that will sue when a company doesn’t get the resolution it wants.

Wheeler promises the revised proceeding will invite more comments from the public regarding whether paid prioritization is a good idea and whether Title II reclassification is the better option. While we appreciate the fact Wheeler is asking the questions, we’ve been too often disappointed by FCC chairmen that apply prioritization of a different sort — to those that routinely have business before the FCC, including phone and cable company executives. Chairman Genachowski’s Net Neutrality policy was largely drafted behind closed doors by FCC lawyers and telecom industry lobbyists. Consumers were not invited and we’re not certain the FCC is actually listening to us.

The Wall Street Journal indicates the road remains bumpy and pitted with potholes:

Mr. Wheeler’s insistence that his strategy would preserve an open Internet, without previously offering much insight into how, has been a source of disquiet within his agency. Of the five-member commission, both Republicans are against any form of net neutrality rules, which they view as unnecessary. Commission observers will be watching the reaction of the two Democrats, Ms. Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, to Mr. Wheeler’s new language.

“There is a wide feeling on the eighth floor that this is a debacle and I think people would like to see a change of course,” said another FCC official. “We may not agree on the course, but we agree the road we’re on is to disaster.”

There is still time to recalculate, but we wonder if Mr. Wheeler, a longtime former lobbyist for the wireless and cable industries, is capable of sufficiently bending towards the public interest.

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And the Winner Is… United Arab Emirates Now the World Leader in Fiber to the Home Broadband

fiberThe United Arab Emirates leads the world with the highest penetration of fiber-to-the-home broadband service.

At least 85 percent of all homes in the UAE today rely on fiber broadband, according to research by the Fiber to the Home Council.

The UAE’s love for fiber broadband comes from the country’s aggressive government-directed infrastructure and services modernization plan as part of the Emirates’ transformation into the 21st century knowledge economy.

In the UAE, e-commerce, e-government, e-education, and e-health are pervasive, allowing residents instant access to government, commercial, health and educational services. Only fiber broadband had the capacity to handle both the broadband traffic today and sustain the rapid expansion of bandwidth required tomorrow.

The country relies on fiber networks to power smart electricity service, cell towers, wireless data, and various electronic payment systems, which allow consumers to use a single smart card to pass through immigration at airports with biometric authentication, as well as pay for everything from food to traffic fines, utility bills, or even zakat (charitable giving by Muslims).

The two national broadband providers — du and Etisalat, both invested heavily in fiber infrastructure with a goal of connecting every home and business to their competing fiber networks.

uaeSubscription rates in the next-biggest markets — South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan — range from 63 percent to 37 percent, the council notes. In comparison, the United States trails dismally with just 7.62% of Americans signed up for fiber to the home service and Canada’s fiber numbers still too negligible to rate, with only Atlantic Canada seeing widespread fiber deployments.

This leaves North America rapidly falling behind in the race to build next generation fiber broadband networks.

Speaking at the ITU’s recent World Telecommunication Development Conference, the council’s chairman, Dr. Suleiman Al Hedaithy noted that “fiber connections are available to more than 200 million homes globally — a tenth of all the households in the world,” adding that of these homes, “an estimated 107 million households subscribe to fiber-based services.”

Across the Middle East and North Africa, “more than 1.5 million households are using FTTH service,” Al Hedaithy added, with the UAE “ranked number one in FTTH penetration rate globally, for the past two consecutive years.”

In comparison, only 8.7 million Americans subscribe to fiber service.

Etisalat has invested $5.17 billion in fiber upgrades inside the UAE.

Living the eLife with fiber to the home service in the UAE.

Living the eLife with fiber to the home service in the UAE.

Last year, the total length of the UAE’s fiber network was equal to “five times the distance between the Earth and the moon, consisting of a total of 2.8 million kilometers of cable being deployed all over the country,” Etisalat CEO Saleh Al Abdooli said.

Elsewhere across the region:

  • Saudi Arabia’s ambitious fiber to the home projects reached 38% of households by the end of 2013;
  • Qatar will approach 100% fiber coverage by the end of 2015;
  • The next growth areas in regional fiber network construction will be in Egypt, Algeria, and Kuwait;
  • The fastest speed fiber networks offering 100+Mbps are in Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE;
  • There is no relevant development of fiber networks in Libya, Sudan, Syria, Yemen or the Palestinian territories.

“The future,” according to Christine Beylouni, director general at the FTTH Council Middle East & North Africa, “is definitely fiber to the home.”

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Sprint Applying Speed Breaks to Top 5% of Wireless Data Users Accessing Congested Cell Sites

throttleEffective June 1st, all Sprint contract and prepaid customers, as well as those using Virgin Mobile USA and Boost will find their wireless data speeds throttled if Sprint finds they are among the top 5% of users on a congested cell site.

Text messages are being sent to all customers about Sprint’s new “fairness algorithm” that it will use as part of its data “prioritization management.”

“Beginning 6/1/14, to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times, Sprint/Virgin Mobile USA/Boost may manage prioritization of access to network resources in congested areas for customers within the top 5 percent of data users.”

Such text messages are unlikely to be understood by average customers who have no idea how much data they use, don’t understand what “prioritization of access” means, or what would make them a “top 5 percent” data user. What many do understand is that they were sold “unlimited use” plans that will be much harder to use if they are identified as a 5%‘r.

Fierce Wireless found answers to several unanswered questions:

  • Boost and Virgin customers exceeding 2.5GB of data use a month used to find their data speeds cut to 256kbps until the beginning of their next billing cycle. In March, Sprint announced it was further cutting speeds in the punishment zone to 128kbps for affected prepaid customers;
  • Sprint’s postpaid/prepaid customers are likely to find themselves throttled once they exceed 5GB of usage per month.

speedbumpSprint says the throttle will only be activated on “congested cell sites” and will impact WiMAX, 3G and LTE 4G networks owned by the company. Anyone who has used Sprint’s 3G network will discover most urban and suburban Sprint cell towers are frequently congested, judging by the low speeds many customers endure. Rural customers or those served on the edge of a suburban area may never find themselves throttled and Sprint promises once traffic clears, the throttle is shut off.

At the same time, once Sprint labels you a “heavy user,” they can leave you in the penalty box for up to 60 days because the network prioritization will also apply during the following month of service.

“Customers that continue to fall within the top 5 percent of data users will continue to be subject to prioritization,” Sprint said.

The approach “will enable us to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times,” Sprint said in a statement sent to FierceWirelessTech.

Other wireless carriers also have employed speed throttling to control their grandfathered “unlimited data” customers, Fierce Wireless notes:

During September 2011, Verizon Wireless implemented what it  termed a “network optimization” plan to limit the bandwidth for the operator’s top 5 percent of 3G smartphone users who are on a grandfathered unlimited data plan. (Ed. Note: However, because of FCC requirements, Verizon cannot throttle its 4G LTE customers.)

One month later, AT&T Mobility  instituted a similar plan, targeting the top 5 percent of users on unlimited plans in specific high-traffic locations. However, AT&T was forced to alter its approach in early 2012 after an outcry from users who were unprepared to have their speeds reduced, particularly in cases where some of them had only consumed 2 GB of data. AT&T’s revised policy slowed speeds of unlimited data users who exceeded specific data thresholds.

T-Mobile US also uses a form of prioritization, noting “certain T-Mobile plans may be prioritized” over service plans under its GoSmart Mobile prepaid brand.

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