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Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

DSL and the ISPs That Love It: There’s Better Broadband in the Back-End of Crete

Frontier is the dominant phone company in West Virginia.

Frontier is the dominant phone company in West Virginia.

Ann Sheridan and Michael Sheridan are probably not related, but they share one thing in common: lousy DSL broadband.

Michael Sheridan, who lives in Lewisburg, W.V., is the lead plaintiff in a dragged-out class action lawsuit against Frontier Communications in the state, alleging the phone company has engaged in marketing flim-flam promising lightning fast DSL Internet speeds many customers complain they just do not receive. Ann Sheridan is a university lecturer in Ireland who doesn’t enjoy her DSL service as much as she endures it, when it works.

They live thousands of miles apart, but the problems are largely the same: for-profit phone companies trying to get as much revenue out of copper-based networks suitable for 20th century landlines while spending as little possible on broadband-friendly upgrades.

The phone company that dominates West Virginia has done all it can to have the lawsuit thrown out of court, claiming its terms and conditions mandate dissatisfied customers seek arbitration instead of a class action case. Frontier claims it inserted that condition into its terms and conditions a few years ago. Sheridan and his attorneys are now before the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals defending the case.

Crete is an island and part of the territory of Greece.

Crete is an island and part of the territory of Greece.

Despite Frontier’s insistence it sells contract-free Internet with no tricks or traps, Sheridan argues Frontier traps customers with unilateral fine print.

“Cases from all over the country establish that a simple notation on a website cannot form an agreement to arbitrate, a line item at the tail end of a bill that does not even state the specifics of the agreement cannot form an agreement to arbitrate, and a bill stuffer purporting to unilaterally amend an existing contractual relationship does not form an agreement to arbitrate,” the respondent’s brief states.

Many West Virginians with Frontier DSL complain they never exceed 5Mbps in speed, even though they are buying plans that advertise double that.

“Frontier’s practice of overcharging and simultaneously failing to provide the high-speed, broadband level of service it advertises has created high profits for Frontier but left West Virginia Internet users in the digital dark age,” according to the brief.

County Kildare, Ireland

County Kildare, Ireland

Life isn’t much better for those driving 30 minutes outside of Dublin, where broadband can be charitably described as “rustic.” In fact, Sheridan claims there is better broadband in the back-end of Crete than what the average resident in suburban and rural Ireland can manage to get out of questionable copper wiring.

In one notorious incident Sheridan described as “stereotypically Irish,” broadband service was brought to its knees for a good part of County Kildare for over a week earlier this year after a group of retaliatory cows upset over the Irish winter worked their way through a broken fence and collectively took out their frustration on a transformer they knocked over, taking out Internet access in the process.

Just having broadband service available doesn’t solve the digital divide if that service becomes oversold and unreliable. Both Sheridans argue broadband connections often deteriorate as more customers sign up. Without corresponding capacity upgrades to keep up with sales, speeds slow and service can become troublesome.

Broadband nemesis

Broadband nemesis

Patrick Donnelly, a farmer and builder from Calverstown reports Internet speeds 20 years ago were faster than what he gets today from his DSL service.

“Currently, I think I’m on my fourth provider. There’s all these little start-ups and generally they’re not too bad when you sign up originally,” Donnelly reports from his farm in Ireland. ‘But as soon as an ISP signs up more customers, speeds seem to get slower and slower. During peak usage times, it can become unusable.’

In West Virginia, some customers believe if their Internet speeds are poor, they need to buy an upgraded, faster speed tier from Frontier to compensate. That is usually a waste of money if the existing network is either inadequate or overburdened with customer traffic. But many customers don’t realize this. Often, fine print in a company’s terms and conditions disclaims the very bold and prominent speed claims that most customers actually see. Sheridan argues Frontier’s fine print goes even further by limiting their customers’ recourse when advertising claims do not meet reality.

“Frontier’s position is that consumers are obliged to be on alert at all times – diligently reviewing the fine print on each and every page of promotional material received – for the possibility that they may be waiving their rights by doing nothing at all,” the brief states.

Sheridan admits her point she’d move to Crete to get better broadband would be funny if the implications were not so serious.

“Not having broadband is a bit like not having electricity or only having it intermittently,” Sheridan said.

“It’s not a luxury any more, this is a necessity,” Donnelly said in agreement. “We’re 20 years behind now it’s time we caught up.”

Charter Completes Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger Today

charter twc bhAmerica has a new second largest cable conglomerate with 17 million customers and a new name.

Charter Communications formally completed their $55 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks today, creating a new cable giant that more closely rivals number one Comcast in size and scope.

The approval came despite warnings from a team at the FCC assigned to review the impact of the merger.

The Deal is Likely to Trigger an Abusive Money Party at the Expense of Customers… Merger Approved

“We conclude that the transaction will materially alter [Charter’s] incentives and abilities in ways that are potentially harmful to the public interest,” an FCC report about the impact of the merger states.

The FCC concluded the deal could become an enormous money-maker for Charter and its investors through the eventual metering of online usage. There are strong incentives, according to the FCC, for Charter “to impose data caps and usage-based prices in order to make watching online video more expensive, and in particular more expensive than subscribing to a traditional pay-TV bundle” after its voluntary commitment not to impose data caps expires.

Existing Charter customers warn this isn't the cable company you are looking for.

Existing Charter customers warn this isn’t the cable company you are looking for.

The FCC is also certain Charter will enjoy considerable pricing power with its near broadband monopoly at speeds of 25Mbps or higher. That means one thing: substantial rate increases unchecked by competition.

Despite the gloomy prospects, FCC commissioners found a “compromise” that will impose consumer-friendly conditions on the merger, but will expire between 5-7 years from today. After that, in the absence of robust competition from a player like Google Fiber, it will be open season on broadband customers.

Consumer advocates were less than pleased.

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

[Image: WSJ.com]

In fact, the golden parachutes will extend far beyond retiring Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus. According to a regulatory filing, Marcus’ contract was written to allow him to sell the company and effectively be “terminated without cause,” which activates the equivalent of a Powerball Powerplay. Marcus will automatically qualify to receive several years’ worth of his original salary, expected bonuses, and compensation in stock for showing himself to the exit. That alone is expected to exceed $100 million. Marcus’ ancillary benefits also add up, and will be eventually disclosed in future filings with the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Marcus’ colleagues won’t leave empty-handed either. The chief operating officer and chief financial officer of Time Warner Cable could each get $32 million in compensation. The general counsel of Time Warner will retire with around $22 million and some mid-level executives could leave with around $18 million each.

Familar names on Wall Street will also enjoy proceeds worthy of Donald Trump Lotto. Everyone’s favorite financial casino Goldman Sachs is sitting pretty with millions in fees advising Charter on both its acquisitions of Bright House and Time Warner Cable. UBS helped lead the financing of the whopping $55 billion deal on behalf of Charter and is the sole financial adviser to Advance/Newhouse, which owns Bright House. That means big bucks for the Swiss bank.

fishThe Small Swallow the Big

Charter was a much smaller, and not well-regarded cable company before it financed the acquisition of two of its non-competing rivals. In fact, Time Warner Cable was already the country’s second largest cable operator before the acquisition, and Charter will have to contend with managing a cable operator much larger than itself. Charter executives have hinted it will take many months to manage that transition, with the eventual retirement of both the Time Warner Cable and Bright House brands, in favor of Charter and its Spectrum product suite.

Those not already Charter customers will be subjected to a publicity campaign to manage the introduction of Charter in the best possible light, despite the fact current Charter customers rate the cable operator as mediocre in consumer surveys. Its reputation is well-known, especially in the middle of the country where many Charter systems operate.

Charter will continue to be led by CEO Thomas Rutledge, who will also hold the titles of president and chairman of the board. But the man behind-the-scenes expected to have a substantial amount of influence in how Charter is run in the future is ex-Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) CEO Dr. John Malone through his entity Liberty Broadband, which will control three seats on Charter’s board of directors, including one for Malone himself. Malone advocated for Rutledge to become CEO of Charter after the cable company emerged from bankruptcy reorganization in 2009.

makeoverHow to Remake Your Image: Change the Name

Renaming Time Warner Cable isn’t likely to fix the scandalously low regard its customers hold the company. But it couldn’t hurt either.

“It’s not surprising Charter wants to rebrand Time Warner Cable,” said David VanAmburg, managing director of the American Customer Satisfaction Index, which regularly rates Time Warner Cable (and often Comcast trading places) the worst companies in the country. “Charter has scored better than Time Warner Cable in recent years, so it could bode well for Time Warner Cable customers. But the data suggests leaps-and-bounds improvement could be difficult.”

ACSI graded Charter 57 in 2015. Time Warner Cable managed a 58 — both effectively failing grades on a scale of 0-100.

What kinds of services Charter is now compelled to offer is dependent on the state of the cable system serving each area and if regulators extracted concessions on the state level to guarantee better service. The state that worked the hardest to compel upgrades and insist on a more customer-friendly transition is New York, where the Public Service Commission forced concessions to upgrade all of the state and allow customers to keep their current Time Warner Cable plans if they wished.

“On Day One, customers of (Time Warner) won’t really see any changes,” Charter spokesman Justin Venech told the Albany Times Union. “Time Warner Cable and Charter Spectrum will continue offering their current suite of advanced products and services to customers in their markets.”

“As we go all digital market by market, we will launch the Spectrum brand product, pricing and packaging, and Charter will also launch Spectrum in those markets in which (Time Warner has) already gone all digital,” Venech said. “We will be communicating directly with customers, letting them know when they will start seeing the Spectrum brand. In addition, when our Spectrum packages launch, if a customer likes the package they are currently in, they will be able to stay in that package.”

Fed Up With Frontier in California? Tell State Legislature to Act

assembly caIf you are a Frontier Communications customer in California that experienced bad service as a result of the transition from Verizon to Frontier, it is time to complain to the California State Assembly.

Stop the Cap! reader Sergio reminds us the Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce will be meeting at 1:30 pm in Sacramento on Wednesday, May 18. They are open to hearing your complaints and problems regarding Frontier’s performance in the state. If you had problems or are still experiencing them, having an Assembly member intervene can be very effective in getting your service problems fixed, and deliver a message that Frontier’s rosy pronouncements on the transition are fact-challenged. But you need to act now, before the meeting on Wednesday.

By email: [email protected]

By phone: (916) 319-2083

You can also contact one or more Assembly members on the committee directly at these numbers:

  • Mike Gatto (Chair) (916) 319-2043
  • Jim Patterson (Vice Chair) (916) 319-2023
  • Autumn R. Burke (916) 319-2062
  • Rocky J. Chávez (916) 319-2076
  • Brian Dahle (916) 319-2001
  • Susan Talamantes Eggman (916) 319-2013
  • Cristina Garcia (916) 319-2058
  • Eduardo Garcia (916) 319-2056
  • David Hadley (916) 319-2066
  • Roger Hernández (916) 319-2048
  • Jay Obernolte (916) 319-2033
  • Bill Quirk (916) 319-2020
  • Miguel Santiago (916) 319-2053
  • Philip Y. Ting (916) 319-2019
  • Das Williams (916) 319-2037

 

Financial Mess for Altice Abroad, U.S. Cable Customers Will Help Cover the Losses

altice debtAs Patrick Drahi’s telecom empire continues to strain under massive debts, a customer exodus in France, and cut throat competition in Europe that has reduced prices of some plans to less than $5 a month, the one thing his parent company Altice can count on is the deep pockets of the American cable subscriber.

The two cable companies that could make all the difference in helping Mr. Drahi keep the proverbial lights on at Empire Altice are his American acquisitions: Suddenlink and, if regulators ultimately approve, Cablevision. The French newspaper Les Echos notes Suddenlink customers are already helping cover Altice’s terrible financial performance in Europe, thanks to that cable company’s 42.5% profit margin. Suddenlink customers will be doing even more to help bail out Drahi’s difficult situation in France, thanks to future rate increases and the continued implementation of broadband usage plans that will push customers towards upgrades. But there is more to come.

“Cablevision will complete the ‘desensitization’ of France’s turbulent [telecom] marketplace for Altice,” reports the newspaper. Cablevision gives Altice an opportunity to cut costs and rely on New York, New Jersey and Connecticut customers to squeeze money out of the New York-based cable operator, validating Drahi’s “American adventure” — acquiring barely competitive cable companies to bolster revenue and profits. Customers are not expected to see lower cable bills, despite the cost cutting.

Overleveraged

Overleveraged

Altice’s troubled SFR-Numericable, which provides cable and mobile service in France, continues to endure a wholesale customer exodus, losing another 272,000 wireless customers during the first three months of 2016. Another 61,000 customers canceled cable and broadband service at the same time, despite price cuts. Even with cut-rate promotions, more than 1.4 million customers asked SFR-Numericable for a divorce over the last 15 months.

“They can’t give the service away for free,” says François Beauparlant, who dropped SFR-Numericable in January. “The company specializes in broken promises and shady deals. They promised upgrades and left us with service that regularly fails or Internet speeds only a small amount of what they promoted.”

Beauparlant rebuffed SFR despite its well-publicized offer of a wireless service package with 20GB of data and unlimited calls and text messages for $4.50 a month for a year.

Meanwhile, in Bethpage, N.Y., the neighbors are hopeful that quieter skies are in their future as the long-predicted Great Slash-a-thon at Cablevision is reportedly about the begin, starting with the permanent grounding of the cable company’s fleet of four executive helicopters which regularly fly in and out of Cablevision’s corporate headquarters.

The executives that relied on them won’t have much time to lament the loss, as the New York Post reports Drahi is ready to show Cablevision’s top-10 executives the door within weeks. Drahi wants everyone earning $300,000 or more out of the company as soon as possible.

Altice's cost-cutting Huns arrive.

Altice’s cost-cutting warriors arrive.

“I do not like to pay salaries. I pay as little as I can,” Drahi told investors at a conference last year.

Drahi also said he prefers to pay minimum wage wherever possible, a fact lesser Cablevision employees are likely to find out this summer. While those in lower level positions are likely to get “take it or leave it” offers, the top echelon of well-paid Cablevision executives will be paid even more in golden parachute exit packages, expected to be worth millions.

Among the recipients will likely be CEO James Dolan, general counsel David Ellen and vice-chairmen Hank Ratner and Gregg Seibert. Dolan’s wife Kristen, appointed chief operating officer several years ago, is still up in the air. She won’t be working at Altice’s pay scale, but may form a data-oriented joint venture with Altice later, according to the Post.

Drahi still insists he can find $900 million to cut from Cablevision’s annual budget. Critics of Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision insist those savings will come at the cost of customers, who could end up with the consequences of a dramatically reduced budget to manage upgrades, outsourced customer service, and dubious subcontractors.

Drahi’s willingness to withhold payments from vendors and suppliers to extract discounts is also likely to affect Cablevision’s relationships with cable programming networks and TV stations. The Post reports he is looking to offer slimmed-down cable TV packages, which means confronting powerful entertainment conglomerates like Disney, Viacom, Discovery, Comcast, and News Corp. Playing hardball with Viacom has not gone well for smaller cable conglomerates like Cable One, which dropped Viacom-owned channels from its lineup when it could not win enough price concessions. Disney’s ESPN has shown a willingness to sue if its expensive sports network is shunned from discounted cable TV packages.

Drahi concedes Altice and SFR-Numericable may not be the most popular companies in France, but ultimately it may not matter if he owns and controls the content customers want to watch. He is pouring money into French media acquisitions, including newspapers, launching his own Paris-based news channel, and acquiring TV networks and the exclusive rights to show popular sports like English football on them.

Commentary: CPUC Unanimously Approves Charter-TWC-Bright House Merger

charter twcCharter Communications could not have closer friends than the commissioners on the California Public Utilities Commission who unanimously voted in favor of the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable while some almost apologized for bothering the cable company with pesky deal conditions.

CPUC president Michael Picker quickly dispensed with the glaring omission of a sunset provision on Charter’s three-year voluntary commitment to abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order by inviting his fellow commissioners to add it back for Charter’s benefit. How nice of him. The cable company lobbyists in attendance at today’s hearing did not even need to ask.

Picker’s review of the merger benefits effectively recited a Charter press release and he seemed genuinely pleased with himself for making it all possible. For example, the CPUC considered the addition of a provision allowing consumers to buy their own cable modems and set-top boxes without a penalty from their provider “unprecedented,” while never mentioning they failed to adopt recommendations that customers be given a discount for providing their own equipment. Score Charter, which can continue to collect modem fees built into the price of its broadband service even when you provide your own.

Dampier

Dampier

New Charter’s “exciting” commitment to upgrade to 300Mbps by 2019 sounds good, until one realizes Time Warner Cable was committed to finishing their own 300Mbps upgrade at least one year earlier, and at a lower cost to customers. In fact, while California celebrates 300Mbps by 2019, thanks to the efforts of Stop the Cap! and the New York Public Service Commission, Charter is required to be ready to offer gigabit service across the state that same year. See what is possible when you actually try, CPUC?

The commissioners repeatedly thanked Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable while ignoring the consumer groups that contributed opposing comments and tangible suggestions to improve benefits for consumers — almost entirely ignored by the CPUC. That will cost Californians dearly and borders on regulatory malpractice. If the CPUC required California to at least enjoy the same benefits other state utility regulators won for their constituents, Californians would get a substantially better deal. Instead, the CPUC insisted on giving California and even worse deal than the FCC, by granting Charter’s right to gouge customers with usage caps and usage billing in three years, even after the FCC agreed to seven years of cap-free Internet. Mr. Picker and the other commissioners owe California an explanation for letting them down, and the scandal-plagued CPUC needs to demonstrate it is reforming after the shameful performance of its former chairman Michael Peevey.

“Today was a travesty for Californian consumers, and frankly we were shocked to watch ostensibly independent commissioners carry water for Charter Communications,” said Stop the Cap! president Phillip Dampier. “We saw clear evidence of a commission more concerned about Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable than for the average citizens of California that will face higher cable bills, time limits on unlimited Internet access, and a longer wait for upgrades as a direct result of today’s decision. Consumer groups like Stop the Cap! brought clear and convincing evidence to the commission that the benefits of this merger have time limits and plenty of fine print. We offered concrete suggestions on how to improve the deal for consumers — ideas accepted in other states, but the CPUC clearly wasn’t interested in anything that might make Charter uncomfortable.”

California Dreamin’: Will Regulators Approve Tougher Charter/Time Warner Merger Conditions Today?

charter twc bhAll signs are pointing to a relative cake walk for Charter Communications’ executives this afternoon as they seek final approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to acquire Time Warner Cable systems in the state, with the help of an Administrative Law Judge that is recommending approval with a minimum of conditions.

In fact, the strongest condition Charter may have to accept in California came by accident. As part of Charter’s lobbying effort, it proposed a set of voluntary conditions it was prepared to accept, claiming to regulators these conditions would represent benefits of approving the transaction. One of those was a temporary three-year commitment to abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which among other things bans paid prioritization (Internet fast lanes), intentionally blocking lawful Internet content, and speed throttling your Internet connection.

Somewhere along the way, someone forgot to include the language that sunsets (or ends) Charter’s voluntary commitment after three years.

Without it, Charter will have to abide by the terms of the FCC’s Open Internet Order forever.

cpucSoon after recognizing the change in language, Charter’s lawyers appealed to the CPUC to correct what it called a “drafting error.”

“[New Charter does] not seek modification of the second sentence, which matches their voluntary commitments, but believe[s] that the three-year limitation in the second sentence was intended to— and should—apply to the first sentence as well,” Charter’s lawyers argued two weeks ago.

In other words, the Administrative Law Judge’s apparent attempt to ‘cut and paste’ Charter’s own press release-like voluntary deal commitments into his personal recommendation went horribly wrong. Charter’s lawyers prefer to call it an “intent to track” the company’s voluntary commitments. Either way, Charter’s lawyers all call the new language unfair.

“Holding New Charter indefinitely to FCC rules even after the FCC’s rules are invalidated or modified, and irrespective of future market conditions or the practices or rules governing New Charter’s competitors, would be a highly unconventional requirement,” the lawyers complained.

That provides valuable insight into how “New Charter” is likely to feel about Net Neutrality three years from now. Charter’s lawyers argue it would be unfair to hold them to “invalidated” rules — the same ones the company itself has voluntarily embraced as a condition of approval, but only for now.

Remarkably, in the final revision of the Administrative Law Judge’s recommendations to the CPUC recommending approval, the language that is keeping Charter’s lawyers up at night is still there:

New Charter shall fully comply with all the terms and conditions of the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order, regardless of the outcome of any legal challenge to the Open Internet Order. In addition, for a period of not less than three years from the closing of the Transaction, New Charter (a) will not adopt fees for users to use specific third-party Internet applications; (b) will not engage in zero-rating; (c) will not engage in usage-based billing; (d) will not impose data caps; and (e) will submit any Internet interconnection disputes not resolvable by good faith negotiations on a case-by-case basis.

Charter's new service area, including Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers.

Charter’s new service area, including Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers.

If it remains intact through the vote expected this afternoon, New Charter will have to permanently abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, with no end date. That condition will apply in California, and because of most-favored state status, also in New York.

Stop the Cap!’s recommendations to the CPUC are also in the same document, although our views were not shared by the judge:

Stop the Cap! objects to [New Charter’s] 3-year moratorium on data caps and usage based pricing for broadband services. It argues that such bans should be made permanent or, if not permanent, should last at least 7 years in parallel with the lifespan of the conditions imposed in the FCC’s approval of the parent company merger. In addition, Stop the Cap! objects to what it asserts will be a major price increase for existing Time Warner customers when Charter’s pricing plans replace Time Warner’s pricing plans.

More broadly, Stop the Cap! president Phillip Dampier called the revised recommendations to approve the deal underwhelming and disappointing.

“By window-dressing what is essentially Charter’s own voluntary offer to the CPUC, the commission is continuing to miss a golden opportunity to win deal conditions that will meaningfully benefit Californian consumers that will otherwise get little more than higher cable and broadband bills,” Dampier told Communications Daily. “Virtually everything Charter is promising customers is already available or soon will be from Time Warner Cable, often for less money. Time Warner Cable committed to offering its customers 300Mbps speeds, no usage caps or usage billing, and all-digital service through its Maxx upgrade program, expected to be complete by the end of 2017 or 2018. The CPUC is proposing to allow New Charter to wait until 2019 to provide 300Mbps service and potentially cap Internet service three years after that, four years less than what the FCC is demanding.”

Among the conditions Charter will be expected to fulfill in return for approval of its merger in California:

  • Within a year of the closing of the merger deal, New Charter must boost broadband download speeds for customers on their all-digital platform to at least 60Mbps, an upgrade that is largely already complete.
  • Within 30 months, New Charter must upgrade all households in its California service territory to an all-digital platform with download speeds of not less than 60Mbps, an upgrade that has already been underway for a few years.
  • By Dec. 31, 2019, New Charter shall offer broadband Internet service with speeds of at least 300Mbps download to all households with current broadband availability from New Charter in its California network. Time Warner Cable essentially promised to do the same by early 2018, with many of its customers already getting up to 300Mbps in Southern California.
  • While Charter talks about a bright future for the Time Warner customers joining its family, the company has not done a great job maintaining and upgrading its own cable systems in parts of California. Many smaller communities still only receive analog cable TV from Charter, with no broadband option at all. Therefore, the CPUC is giving New Charter three years to deploy 70,000 new broadband “passings” to current analog-only cable service areas in Kern, Kings, Modoc, Monterey, San Bernardino and Tulare counties. But the CPUC is giving New Charter a break, only requiring them to offer up to 100Mbps service in these communities.
  • Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers in California will be able to keep their current broadband service plans for up to three years. Customers will also be allowed to buy their own cable modems and set-top boxes, but there is no requirement New Charter compensate customers who do with a service discount.
  • Within six months of the deal closing, New Charter must offer Lifeline phone discounts within its service territory in California.
  • New Charter must print and distribute brochures explaining the need for backup power to keep phone service working if electricity is interrupted. Those brochures must be available in multiple languages including, but not limited to, English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as in accessible formats for visually impaired customers.

The CPUC is also expected to adopt Charter’s own voluntary commitments not to impose usage caps, usage billing, modem fees, and other customer-unfriendly practices for three years, a point that drew strong criticism from Stop the Cap! and the California Office of Ratepayer Advocates for being inadequate.

Both groups proposed that bans on data caps and usage billing should stay in place “until there is effective competition in Southern California, or no shorter than seven years after the decision is issued, whichever is later.”

ORA’s program supervisor Ana Maria Johnson believes the proposed changes don’t go far enough to “mitigate the harms that the merger will likely cause, especially in Southern California.”

Dampier was surprised how little the CPUC seemed to be asking of New Charter, especially in comparison to regulators in New York.

“The New York Public Service Commission did a more thorough job protecting consumers by insisting on faster and better upgrades, including readiness for gigabit service, and the same level of broadband service for all of New Charter’s customers in New York,” Dampier argued. “It also demanded and won meaningful expansion in rural broadband, low-cost Internet access, protection of New York jobs, and improved customer service. It is remarkable to us the CPUC did not insist on at least as much for California.”

The CPUC is expected to take a final vote on the merger deal this afternoon, starting at 12:30pm ET/9:30am PT and will be webcast. It is the 20th item on the agenda.

AT&T Ghostwritten Bill Would Allow End of Rural Landline/DSL Service in California

att californiaIn California, AT&T’s money and influence has the power to bend reality for some members of the California legislature.

This spring, AT&T is lobbying hard for a bill it largely wrote itself that vaguely promises 21st century technology upgrades if the state’s politicians agree to near-total deregulation and permission to scrap landline service and DSL for rural residents.

Assembly Bill 2395, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), allows AT&T to decommission wired service across the state, so long as the company replaces it with any alternative capable of connecting customers to 911. Smoke signals might qualify, but most suspect AT&T’s true agenda is to replace its legacy wireline network with wireless service in areas where it has no interest upgrading its facilities to offer U-verse.

Members of the Assembly’s Utilities & Commerce Committee were easily swayed to believe the company’s claims this will represent a massive upgrade for California telecommunications. At least that is what the company is saying in their lobbying pamphlets. In April, committee chairman Michael Gatto (D-Los Angeles), one of the bill’s strongest advocates, told his fellow committee members it was safe to trust AT&T’s assurances it was not using the bill to kill rural landline telephone service.

“We have a very, very good perspective on history in this committee and you can rest assured that nobody will tear up any copper line infrastructure,” said Gatto, who gradually became less sure of himself as he pondered the impact of AT&T scrapping the one option many rural Californians have to connect to the outside world. “The cost of it, to tear up every street in the United States and take out the copper is not going to happen. At least, I don’t think it’ll happen…. This committee will not let it happen.”

Low

Low

Despite that less-than-rousing endorsement, and the fact the bill’s language would allow AT&T to do exactly that, the bill sailed to approval in the committee. It was also endorsed by a range of non-profit and business groups, including the Boys & Girls Club, Black Chamber of Commerce, Do It Yourself Girls, The Latino Council, NAACP-Los Angeles, San Jose Police Officers’ Association, and the United Women’s Organization — almost all regular recipients of “contributions” from AT&T.

Consumer groups are largely opposed to the measure, because it gives AT&T near carte blanche to disconnect rural residents and leave them with inferior and more expensive wireless alternatives. It also scraps most oversight over AT&T’s business practices in the state, which are not stellar. Those living in rural areas are opposed even more.

The Rural County Representatives of California, representing the interests of local leaders in 35 rural counties across the state, came out strongly against AB 2395, pointing out earlier deregulation efforts and a largely hands-off California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) helped create the digital divide problem that already exists in the state, and AT&T’s bill proposes to make it worse.

S

Frentzen

“While AB 2395 offers the promise of a more modern communications system for California, the bill devises a scheme that minimizes consumer protections and provides avenues for telecommunication providers to abandon their current subscribers from ever experiencing these modern telecommunications options,” said the group. “RCRC would have far more comfort with relinquishment proposals if California’s telecommunications stakeholders, including the CPUC, had met their obligations in providing near universal access. And that access included quality, demand-functions found in other areas of the state. Unfortunately, much of California has either no connectivity (unserved) or inferior connectivity (under-served). Until this digital divide is eliminated, we cannot support changes in the regulatory and statutory environment which furthers this gulf between who gets access and who does not.”

While AT&T continues to deny it will do anything to disconnect rural California, the company vehemently opposes efforts to drop language from the bill that would grant them the right to retire landline service. AT&T’s lobbyists insist the legislature can still trust the company, an idea that failed to impress Shiva Frentzen, the supervisor of El Dorado:

Trust is something that you earn. It’s built over time. We have a rural county each constituent, all your consumers, pay into the infrastructure, but we don’t see the high-speed coming to the rural parts of the county because it does not pencil out. For larger companies to bring the service in those areas – the infrastructure costs a lot and the monthly service does not pay for it. So that is the experience we’ve had with larger providers like yourself. We have not had the trust and the positive experience for our rural county, so that’s why we are where we are.

Editor’s Note: My apologies to Steve Blum, who didn’t get full credit for gathering most of the quotes noted in this piece. We’ve linked above (in bold) to several of his articles that have followed the AT&T lobbying saga, and we’ve added his blog to our permanent list of websites we can recommend.

Stop the Cap! Still Fighting Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger in California

stop-the-capStop the Cap! continues the fight for a better deal for Time Warner Cable customers that could soon end up as Charter Communications customers, if the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approves the merger.

While the Federal Communications Commission formally approved the deal last week, California has yet to sign off on the transaction, giving consumer advocates like Stop the Cap! an opportunity to recommend the state regulator impose stronger consumer-friendly deal conditions that guarantee customers their share of the anticipated windfall in “deal benefits” that shareholders and executives of the companies involved are likely to receive.

Our California coordinator Matthew Friedman has been educating the CPUC about the true nature of data caps and usage-based billing, and sharing our view that Charter’s promised merger deal benefits are illusory, offering little more than what Time Warner Cable already offers its Maxx-upgraded service areas. In fact, Time Warner’s ongoing commitment to not impose compulsory data caps or usage billing is likely to be canceled by Charter Communications, which has only agreed not to impose such billing schemes on customers for three years.

Even worse, future Charter customers are likely to pay higher broadband bills after Charter imposes its regular prices on Time Warner Cable customers — prices often higher than what Time Warner charges for similar services. Although Time Warner customers have been able to negotiate a better deal for themselves after threatening to cancel, Stop the Cap! anticipates Charter will not be as generous with those customers in the future.

At the minimum, Stop the Cap! is recommending the CPUC either permanently ban compulsory usage caps and usage billing from Charter, or add a competition test that will allow such billing only where consumers can switch to a competitor that offers comparable unlimited broadband service.

Charter's broadband "deal"

Charter’s broadband “deal”

The loss of [Time Warner’s] commitment [to always offer unlimited broadband options to consumers] could result in the following harms, according to Friedman:

  1. New Charter’s commitment to provide low cost broadband will become completely voluntary and unenforceable;
  2. increased broadband pricing resulting in decreased demand for broadband;
  3. New Charter will be able to circumvent Net Neutrality rules;
  4. New Charter will be able to engage in a multitude of anticompetitive behaviours, increasing the cost and reducing the attractiveness of competing video content from edge providers, thus lessening the demand for high-speed broadband access to the Internet, and thus running counter to Section 706(a)’s mandate to promote competition in broadband services;
  5. innovation and investment will potentially decrease significantly;
  6. network security can be adversely affected; and,
  7. Californians, especially low-income Californians, may lose access to education opportunities.
We're not drinking "New Charter's" Kool-Aid

We’re not drinking “New Charter’s” Kool-Aid

Stop the Cap! (and the Office of Ratepayer Advocates as well) has offered a reasonable option of requiring a competition test to sunset the prohibition on data caps and usage based pricing,” wrote Friedman. “This suggestion is based on Charter’s own expert testimony and [the conditions] must be rewritten per these suggestions if it is to fulfill multiple statutory requirements.”

Stop the Cap! also advocates that Time Warner Cable customers that purchased their own cable modems to avoid Time Warner’s modem fees deserve an ongoing bill credit for providing their own equipment, because Charter builds the cost of its modem into the price of broadband service.

“Charter already bakes the price of the modem rental into the monthly cost of the plan,” Friedman noted. “New Charter [should be required] to offer a discount to customers who bring their own modems. Charter currently allows customers to bring their own modems… they just continue to charge those customers for a Charter modem that the customer never uses.”

Although Charter’s pledge to increase broadband speeds for Time Warner customers seems laudatory, in fact Charter’s proposed service offerings also represent a significant rate increase for broadband customers who don’t need or want 60Mbps service. They won’t have much choice after Charter imposes its own plans and pricing, which are now limited to 60 or 100Mbps options for most customers, at prices starting at $60 a month.

charter twc“Clearly these TWC customers are materially much worse off under New Charter than TWC,” Friedman told the CPUC. “Equally clear is that Charter’s ‘Simplified Pricing’ (perhaps more accurately described as ‘Fewer Options and Higher Prices’) is far from a public benefit. This massive price increase will affect literally every stand-alone-broadband TWC customer other than the few who qualify for the School Lunch/Senior Assistance plan. While the low-cost School Lunch/Senior Assistance plan is great for the narrowly targeted group of consumers who manage to qualify, roughly doubling the cost of broadband for every other standalone customer more than offsets the combined value of every other ‘benefit’ that the applicants allege will come from this transfer.”

Stop the Cap! also advocates that the CPUC guarantee Charter customers have a choice about the broadband speeds they need and the amount they have to pay for Internet access.

“New Charter should be required to retain TWC’s pricing and plan structure in perpetuity, for both new and existing TWC customers. TWC customers should retain the ability to switch back and forth between TWC’s cheaper, larger variety of plans,” Friedman wrote. “New Charter should be required to continue TWC’s practice of increasing customer speeds as technology advances with no
accompanying price increase.”

Although Charter’s lobbying efforts promote improved service for Time Warner Cable customers, it is our view that once one examines the full scope and impact of Charter’s proposal, customers will be worse off under Charter than they would be staying with Time Warner Cable.

“TWC stands out in its field for its customer-friendly policies such as providing discounts for those who own their own modems, its public commitment to refuse to impose data caps or
usage based pricing even in the face of pressure from Wall Street to do so, and the creation of its TWC Roku App to allow customers to avoid set-top box rental fees,” argued Friedman. “This transfer, as currently conditioned, creates a net public benefit harm, not a benefit, or even a status quo.”

Cablevision May Owe You Up to $140 for Its Cable Box, But Only If You Ask

cablevision boxIf you are or were a Cablevision cable-TV customer, the cable company may owe you up to $140 for overcharging you for their set-top box, but only if you ask.

Current and former subscribers in New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut will share the proceeds of a settlement fund proposed in federal court in response to a class action lawsuit (Marchese v. Cablevision Systems Corp.) that alleged Cablevision has been misrepresenting the need for its cable equipment dating back to 2004.

You probably qualify as a class member if you had cable television service and a Cablevision set-top box anytime between April 30, 2004 and March 9, 2016. Former subscribers will likely receive a check valued at $20-40. Current customers will be offered the option of a one-time bill credit of $20-40 or the opportunity to get free services from Cablevision valued at $50-140. The longer you’ve been a customer, the higher the value of the free services you may qualify for, including free premium movie channels or multi-room DVR service. If you already have both, you will only qualify for the bill credit.

optimumCustomers should register as a class member to guarantee a share of the settlement proceeds. Visit cableboxsettlement.com to register online, e-mail [email protected] call 1-888-760-4871. The deadline to file a claim is Sept. 23, 2016.

The proceeds of the settlement will likely be distributed by the end of this year, after a fairness hearing scheduled for September to discuss the requested attorneys fee, estimated to be as high as $9.5 million.

As is often the case in class action lawsuits, the company being sued need not admit any wrongdoing, and Cablevision is proclaiming its innocence.

“Cablevision denies all of the claims and allegations in the lawsuit and notes that the settlement is subject to final approval of the court,” a company statement said. “We cannot comment further beyond the publicly available filings in the litigation.”

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