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Big Red Verizon Really Wants to Own a Cable Company – Charter or Comcast Will Do Nicely

Shhh… Don’t tell anyone except the newspapers, trade journals, everyone else….

Well-placed sources inside Verizon are leaking like a sieve to the media about the phone giant’s ambition to own and operate a large cable company.

In what may be a trial balloon to test the waters with the incoming Trump Administration, at least two “well-placed sources” have told the New York Post Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam is seriously contemplating countering AT&T’s buy of DirecTV and its attempted acquisition of content company Time Warner, Inc., with the buyout of a major national cable operator.

Verizon’s primary interest, according to multiple sources, is expanding available content to fill its current and future wireless platforms, especially 5G. Acquiring a cable operator would make content deals easier and more affordable because of volume discounting. It would also allow Verizon to directly sell cable products and services without investing in further FiOS expansion.

The CEO told friends at the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas that he “wants to buy into cable.”

The most likely targets would have to be large cable operators with a national footprint, and a source told the tabloid two companies qualified: Charter or Comcast.

“Altice is too small,” the source speculated. That would also count out other medium-sized companies like Cox and Mediacom, because they have too limited a service area to be of much use to Verizon.

No final decision has been made, the newspaper notes, adding no talks are underway between Verizon and any cable company at present. Should Mr. Trump repeat the earlier objections to the AT&T-Time Warner, Inc., merger he made last October, any marriage of Verizon with a cable operator would be unlikely. Trump cited unchecked media consolidation as his primary reason for opposing AT&T’s latest acquisition deal, but he has not repeated those objections recently. Last week Trump met with AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson in New York.

McAdam originally planned to use Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo! as a way to broaden the phone company’s content library, but that yet-to-be-finished deal has been in turbulence since media reports exposed major security breaches of Yahoo’s e-mail and portal sites.

A deal with Charter is more likely than a buyout of Comcast because Charter’s most significant shareholder – John Malone, has no allegiance to keeping Charter Communications independent. Charter also lacks the kind of complications that an acquisition of Comcast could bring – notably Comcast’s ownership of NBC and its dozen owned-and-operated TV stations.

Malone has a long history of dispassionately buying and selling large telecom assets, including the cable company Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) he helped build from a handful of cable systems into what used to be the nation’s largest cable operator. In 1999, TCI was sold and rebranded as AT&T Broadband and Internet Services. Three years later, most of those cable systems were again sold to their present owner Comcast.

Verizon may argue it has already divested significant amounts of its FiOS service to Frontier Communications in the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, Texas, California, and Florida, limiting antitrust concerns. But state regulators, particularly in New York, are likely to raise serious objections if Verizon, already the dominant telephone company in New York (except Rochester) attempts to acquire Charter, the only significant cable operator in upstate New York and Manhattan. That would leave the vast majority of New York with a classic telecom monopoly, with only one provider for landline and broadband service.

Altice End Runs Around Connecticut TV Station’s Blackout By Sending Customers to CBS All Access

“Of course you know this means war.”

Altice USA has found a way to use CBS’ All Access online streaming service against a Connecticut CBS affiliate that blacked out its signal for some Connecticut Cablevision customers.

Meredith-owned CBS affiliate WFSB-TV in Hartford has been off the Optimum television lineup in two dozen Connecticut towns as of 5pm Friday, Jan. 13 after negotiations between Iowa-based Meredith and Altice USA broke down over the price of renewing a retransmission consent contract that Altice claims is 800% more expensive than before.

That means Optimum customers in Litchfield County no longer have access to CBS programming. Or do they? Optimum’s website is redirecting affected customers to WFSB’s network — CBS — and offering a week’s free trial of CBS’ All Access, which allows viewers online access to all CBS programming on demand.

Optimum’s previously negotiated distribution deal with CBS for the All Access platform has been in place since the summer of 2015, which means CBS cannot pull the offer down from Altice’s website. That effectively means CBS is being used to undercut its own affiliate’s most important leverage — taking away popular programming until a provider finally capitulates and signs a renewal contract.

Matt Polka, president of the American Cable Association, which represents small and independent cable companies, loves it.

“Local broadcasters cannibalized by their own network!” Polka tweeted.

Altice USA has promised investors it will hold the line on programming costs even if it means finding alternatives for customers. This seems to be an example at work.

Will CBS All Access weaken Meredith’s position on WFSB to force price concessions? The New Haven Register isn’t sure, reporting there are years of “bad blood” between Cablevision and Meredith over carriage contracts:

During the last retransmission agreement negotiations in 2014, Cablevision Systems called on the Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Meredith Corp. was meeting public interest obligations that are an important component of all television station licenses. Cablevision also sued Meredith in Connecticut’s court system under the Unfair Trade Practices Act.

The latest dispute has attracted the attention of both of Connecticut’s U.S. senators.

“I typically don’t get involved because it’s not for me to dictate the terms of a dispute between a cable company and a network,” Sen. Chris Murphy said in a statement issued Friday night. “But I haven’t been pleased with Altice’s commitment to Connecticut since it bought Cablevision.”

FierceCable reported the area’s congressional delegation isn’t happy with either company:

Connecticut’s two Democratic U.S. Senators, Richard Blumenthal and Christopher Murphy, sent a letter addressed to both Meredith Corp. CEO Stephen Lacy and Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei.

“While we respect the private negotiations being conducted by Optimum and WFSB and make no representations as to the merits of either side’s position, we believe that the current impasse does a disservice to Connecticut families and we urge you to negotiate in good faith to bring an end to this blackout,” the Senators wrote.

Altice, meanwhile, said in its own statement, “We have been negotiating in good faith for weeks and made multiple offers to Meredith even though their initial request was for more than 800% over what we currently pay.”

Wall Street Analyst Craig Moffett Unhappy “Unwelcome” Phone Subsidies Are Back

Moffett

Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst specializing in telecommunications stocks, has lowered his opinion of T-Mobile after the wireless company successfully topped analyst estimates of subscriber growth, in part by giving customers a better deal than its competition.

Moffett is concerned T-Mobile’s subsidized holiday price cuts on the latest Apple iPhone and a new flat rate plan delighted customers but threatened profits.

“[…]Even as the wireless stocks were rising in November and December, handset subsidies were quietly making their unwelcome return,” said Moffett in a report to his clients. “T-Mobile’s new ‘All-In’ pricing plan opens yet another front in the battle over service plan pricing, leaving us incrementally more cautious about ARPU (average revenue per user) forecasts for all operators, not least T-Mobile itself.”

T-Mobile has ditched promotions for all of its usage capped data plans and is now advertising T-Mobile One, an “unlimited” (but throttled for very heavy users) data, text, and calls for an all-inclusive price of $40 per line. Customers can still buy a limited data plan, but T-Mobile’s website strongly de-emphasizes that option.

While T-Mobile added 1.2 million postpaid customers in the fourth quarter, exceeding estimates, Moffett isn’t happy with the prices those customers are paying because it may force other carriers to reduce their pricing as well. That hurts everyone… on Wall Street.

T-Mobile USA John Legere has become a perennial and profane thorn in the side of his competitors.

That kind of marketplace disruption the wireless industry could do without, so analysts on Wall Street are taking bets on what company will acquire T-Mobile and get things back to business as usual. Moffett believes all signs point to an unprecedented wave of deregulation, lower corporate taxes, and money-fueled industry consolidation under the incoming Trump Administration.

Sprint is a rumored favorite to acquire T-Mobile, but then so is Comcast, which may seek to enter the wireless space through a large acquisition. Companies repatriating billions in excess funds stashed in overseas banks at the special low tax rate President-Elect Trump is proposing may be what drives the next buyout frenzy.

Community Broadband Battle in Savannah Media Pits Local GOP Against Broadband Choice

Savannah, Ga.

The very idea that a city would get involved in selling better broadband service to its residents has sparked a coordinated campaign to sully municipally owned providers and color the results of an ongoing study to determine if Savannah, Ga. is getting the kind of internet access it needs.

While the city and county continue their Broadband Fiber-Optic Feasibility Study and survey residents about incumbent providers including AT&T, Comcast, and Hargray Communications, an organized pressure campaign coordinated by the Chatham County GOP is well underway to undermine any idea the city should compete against the three dominant local internet providers.

“The purpose of this study is to examine how we are currently served with broadband infrastructure, particularly focused on the services available to our community residents, anchor institutions, businesses, and key services like public safety, health and education,” a Savannah city spokesperson told Stop the Cap!

The city’s goal is to: “confirm that residents, anchor institutions and businesses have access to the services they need and that those services are competitively priced.” Incumbent providers are betting the answer to that question will likely be no and have started early opposition to discourage the city from attempting to build its own broadband network. Comcast and AT&T have apparently teamed up with the local Chatham County GOP to defend current providers in suspiciously similar-sounding letters to the editor.

Consider two examples.

About a month ago, Stephen Plunk, executive secretary of the Chatham County Republican Party, liberally sprinkled talking points provided by outside think tanks in an editorial published by the Savannah Morning News:

The Savannah Morning News published this ominous illustration adjacent to a guest editorial from a Chatham County GOP official opposing public broadband.

Only 6,000 residents in Chatham County, out of about 280,000, do not have access to wired internet of any sort. About 90 percent of Savannah residents can choose from two or more wired internet service providers . The city’s current residential providers offer speeds up to 105 mbps, and its 12 business providers offer speeds that are generally between 100 mbps and one gigabit.

Private providers also are making big new investments here. Last year, Hargray Communications announced a plan to offer one gigabit speeds to Lowcountry customers. In March, Comcast announced its intention to offer 10-gigabit speeds to city businesses. Last month, AT&T said it also will begin offering superfast capacity.

Next, let’s look at whether a city should provide service directly to customers. Or, is it wise? To determine that, the city council must ask itself whether it wants to go down the path of Marietta, which ran its own internet company several years ago but was forced to sell that network at a loss when it failed to turn a profit year after year. Marietta’s mayor eventually admitted the city never should have become an ISP. There are government ISPs that do make a profit every year, but they are rare. Chattanooga’s government-run system is often touted as a model, but the city received more than $100 million from the federal government to get its system started.

This morning, Mary Flanders, chairwoman of the Chatham County GOP wrote essentially the same things in an “opposing views” piece published by the Connect Savannah weekly newspaper (and at least cited some of her sources):

They should proceed carefully. Cautionary tales about municipal broadband networks abound.

Consider the situation in Marietta, the sprawling suburb northwest of Atlanta. Marietta started its own municipal network that stretched along a 210-mile long route. After spending $35 million to build out the network, Marietta earned a grand total of 180 customers.

The then-Mayor said the city couldn’t keep pace with the expenses associated with the constant flood of technology upgrades required to manage a broadband network. The city ultimately sold the network in 2004 for a $20 million loss.

Pacific Research Institute, in a report on municipal broadband, found that “Mariettans had decided that they would rather take a $20.33 million loss than continue to subsidize a municipal telecom venture that was sucking their city dry.”

Marietta may be relatively close to home, but it’s not the only example. Provo, Utah spent $40 million to build its network, only to sell it to Google Fiber for the princely sum of $1. In Groton, Connecticut, taxpayers lost $38 million.

City leaders need to consider the downside risk to municipal services if and when the broadband network fails to attract customers and generate case. The shortfall has to be made up somewhere. Where will the money come from? Tax hikes?

Budget cuts to basic services or to the police or fire department? Try explaining that to voters come election time, especially if the crime rate is on the rise.

According to Kelly McCutcheon, President of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, typically the consultants are the only ones who come out good on these deals. It would be a bitter pill to swallow by Savannah citizens and city leaders alike.

Let’s dig into some of the specifics on Internet needs in Savannah. Of the 280,000 residents in Chatham County, only 6,000 residents do not have access to wired Internet of any kind. About 90% of Savannah residents can choose from two or more wired Internet service providers (ISPs).

The city’s current residential providers offer speeds up to 105 mbps, and its twelve business providers offer speeds that are generally between 100 mbps and one gigabit, which is considered to be very speedy in the Internet world.

Private providers also are making big new investments in the area. Last year, Hargray Communications announced a plan to offer one gigabit speeds to Lowcountry customers. In March, Comcast announced its intention to offer 10-gigabit speeds to city businesses. Last month, AT&T said it also would begin offering incredibly fast capacity to Savannah entrepreneurs.

On track to be profitable by 2006, local politics forced an early sale of the community fiber network that was succeeding.

Most of these talking points have been debunked by Stop the Cap! over our nine-year history. The examples of municipal broadband failures are so few and far between, we’ve come to recognize them, and many of the shop worn examples provided by the Chatham County Republicans are more than five years old.

In Groton, Conn., the emergence of a municipal provider inspired network upgrades and more competition from Comcast while the phone company Southern New England Telephone (later AT&T and today Frontier Communications) did everything possible to keep the publicly owned provider from offering phone services to customers. In the end, Comcast undercut the municipal provider and AT&T’s deployment of U-verse created problems for the then-rosy revenue projections the municipal provider was depending on to recoup its original construction costs. The network was sold five years ago to a private provider and customers still appreciate the quality of the original network today run by Thames Valley Communications, which rates four out of five stars while its competitors Frontier and Comcast rate two. It would be wrong to assume today’s municipal broadband providers have not learned important lessons and now account for incumbents responding to competition with heavily discounted rate retention plans for customers threatening to leave, as well as network upgrades. Revenue projections have become more conservative, both to deal with unexpected construction costs and the revenue likely to be earned in light of cut-rate plans from the competition. But many customers make the switch anyway, persuaded by the quality and reliability of superior fiber networks, rate stability, and a more responsive level of customer service.

The networks in Provo, Utah and Marietta, Ga., are examples of what happens when politicians opposed to the concept of municipal broadband intentionally meddle with them in an effort to prove an ideological argument or to help move along a pre-conceived sale of publicly owned infrastructure to private companies.

In Provo, the fiber to the home network was built and quickly hamstrung by a Utah state law that forbade the city from selling broadband service to the public. Instead, it had to sell wholesale access to private companies it had to attract, who in turn would provide service to the public. Imagine a marketing campaign for a new provider that required customers to deal with two unfamiliar providers just to sign up.

Christopher Mitchell, who studies municipal networks and advocates for community involvement in broadband, wrote a year ago iProvo was facing serious challenges primarily because politicians and industry lobbyists got in the way:

“Industry lobbyists convinced Utah legislators to restrict local authority over municipal networks to ‘protect’ taxpayers and that argument is still frequently used today by groups opposing local internet choice. The law does not actually revoke local authority to invest in networks, it monkeys around with how local governments can finance the networks and requires that municipalities use the wholesale-only model rather than offering services directly.

“However, the debt-financed citywide wholesale-only model has proven to be the riskiest approach of municipal networks. Building a municipal fiber network where the city can ensure a high level of service is hard and can be a challenge to make work financially. Trying to do that while having less control over quality of service and splitting revenues with 3rd parties is much harder.”

Marietta’s experience with municipal broadband failed only because a new mayor unilaterally declared it an ideological failure and sold the network at a loss for political reasons. We covered that debacle ourselves back in 2012:

In Marietta, the public broadband “collapse” was one-part political intrigue and two-parts media myth.

Marietta FiberNet was never built as a fiber-to-the-home service for residential customers.  Instead, it was created as an institutional and business-only fiber network, primarily for the benefit of large companies in northern Cobb County and parts of Atlanta.  The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported on July 29, 2004 that Marietta FiberNet “lost” $24 million and then sold out at a loss to avoid any further losses.  But in fact, the sloppy journalist simply calculated the “loss” by subtracting the construction costs from the sale price, completely ignoring the revenue the network was generating for several years to pay off the costs to build the network.

In reality, Marietta FiberNet had been generating positive earnings every year since 2001 and was fully on track to be in the black by the first quarter of 2006.

So why did Marietta sell the network?  Politics.

Marietta’s then-candidate for mayor, Bill Dunway, did not want the city competing with private telecommunications companies.  If elected, he promised he would sell the fiber network to the highest bidder.

He won and he did, with telecommunications companies underbidding for a network worth considerably more, knowing full well the mayor treated the asset as “must go at any price.”  The ultimate winner, American Fiber Systems, got the whole network for a song.  Contrary to claims from that the network was a “failure,” AFS retained the entire management of the municipal system and continued following the city’s marketing plan.  So much for the meme government doesn’t know how to operate a broadband business.

While members of the Chatham County GOP took potshots at outside consultants hired to consider whether Savannah should explore offering community broadband, Ms. Flanders was far more sanguine about her sources: the Pacific Research Institute (PRI) and the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.

In fact, the Pacific “Research Institute” doesn’t do independent research and it’s not an institute. It’s a right-wing, dark money-funded think tank with ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Koch Brothers. The Georgia Public Policy Foundation, like PRI, prides itself on not revealing the sources of its funding, but SourceWatch uncovered their financial ties to the Donors Capital Fund, a corporate-“murky money maze” specifically designed to hide corporate contributions and the motives those companies have to send the money. So it isn’t a stretch to assume that when a think tank suddenly takes an interest in municipal broadband, checks from AT&T, Comcast, and others have proven to be helpful motivators.

Frozen in Time: Verizon’s Ultra Slow DSL Languishes On in Massachusetts

When the Berkshire Eagle asked readers to test their internet speeds and share the results, along with opinions about their broadband options, the newspaper hit a nerve.

Over 400 readers in western Massachusetts promptly responded, many with scathing stories about slow speeds and unresponsive customer service.

The newspaper preferred to call it “tortured testimony.”

“It is slow and getting slower,” wrote Bob Rosen, from Otis. “Many times it just says, ‘not responding.'”

It” is Verizon’s DSL — broadband for the masses of landline customers in Massachusetts unlucky enough not to have FiOS fiber to the home service available before Verizon decided to stop expanding its copper-replacement fiber network. For the last seven years, Verizon’s DSL has remained more or less “as-is,” with no significant service improvements or apparent expansion effort.

Source: The ConsumeristUnfortunately, as customer demand for bandwidth grows, performance drops unless providers continually invest in new equipment to manage demand appropriately. Customers in western Massachusetts report Verizon seems to be making do with what they already have, and speeds have suffered.

Douglas Mcnally of Windsor, a member of the Select Board and consultant whose job depends on a good internet connection told the newspaper he really doesn’t have a consistently reliable connection. One test showed a speed of 2.82Mbps, but a second one returned a speed result of 0.64Mbps. Barbara Craft-Reiss from Becket has a connection also topping out at 0.64Mbps.

In Dalton, a customer that repeatedly complained about his 1.5Mbps speed was told that was as good as Verizon DSL was going to get.

“I have had several communications with Verizon and they always say not to expect any more,” the reader told the newspaper. “At times it is so slow the web page expires before it comes up. There are many times it does not work at all.”

On August 13th, 2011, The WiredWest Cooperative in western Massachusetts was officially formed by charter member towns. The project has gained some town, lost some others as the region works towards faster broadband instead of waiting around for Verizon, Comcast, and Charter.

Verizon seemed to echo its “done with DSL” attitude to Robert Rosen who has subscribed since the 1990s at his home in the Otis Woodlands area.

“In the beginning, the signal was very strong. Every six months I would call Verizon and see if I could get a stronger signal. Sometimes it was boosted, however in the past several years I have been told by Verizon I am at max strength,” Rosen said.

But at least he could subscribe. Verizon customer service agents have warned some customers if they drop DSL service, they cannot come back. Bob Johnson dropped his 2Mbps Verizon DSL account — the one he inherited under the previous account-holder’s name.

“I was told that if I cancelled the previous owner’s account, I would not be able to get an account at all,” Johnson reported.

A Verizon spokesperson claimed DSL is still available in Verizon’s FiOS-less service areas, as long as the customer’s line passes a loop qualification test. Only ISDN has been decommissioned in certain service areas, the spokesperson claimed.

But Stop the Cap! has heard from countless Verizon customers who share stories of deteriorating performance and disinterest in improving service, and customer service agents won’t even sell DSL to customers without bundling landline phone service.

“They are just letting the old telephone network fall apart piece by piece,” claims John Landis, a Verizon DSL customer outside of Buffalo, N.Y. “The investment is just not clear anymore. When is the last time Verizon introduced a new service on their wired network, such as faster internet speeds? We’re living with a company where time has stopped, unless you are on Verizon Wireless.”

Verizon’s apparent disinterest in selling DSL broadband has proved to be a significant benefit for cable operators that continue to take market share from the phone company. Strategy Analytics reports cable companies added more than three million new subscribers from 2015 on. Cable operators now have a 62% broadband market share, compared to just 15% for DSL, a percentage that has dropped for years. (Fiber broadband now accounts for a 23% share.)

“The telco operators haven’t been able to shake off the losses of DSL subscribers, but we expect to see increased fiber deployments in the coming quarters, which should help AT&T and Verizon return to growth,” Jason Blackwell, director of Strategy Analytics’ Service Provider Strategies Service said last summer. But much of that growth seems to be targeted for urban and suburban areas, not rural areas where DSL is often the only available broadband technology.

Cable broadband is generally not available in rural areas.

Despite telco claims that wireless broadband alternatives will eventually solve the rural broadband problem, Blackwell is skeptical.

“The reality is fixed broadband is continuing to grow in the U.S., and not being replaced by mobile broadband as some have reported,” he claimed. “The cable operators are driving the growth with increased speeds and multiplay bundles.”

The availability of a cable competitor has helped some in western Massachusetts resolve their broadband problems, but only in communities where cable operators exist. Many western Massachusetts residents are still waiting for community-owned gigabit-capable fiber broadband through the WiredWest project.

In late 2015, politics from the governor’s office put a “pause” on all state “last-mile broadband” projects and a sudden policy shift required each town to own its own network infrastructure despite the widely expressed desire on the local level for a regional approach. More than a year later, the project to improve broadband across the western half of the state is still trapped by bureaucratic interference, allowing the state’s big cable and phone companies to continue the status quo with no alternatives on the immediate horizon.

As of late December, the project is gathering support for sending a resolution to state officials reaffirming their request to allow local communities involved in the project to determine their broadband future without onerous requirements from the governor’s office.

Without WiredWest, the future is not good. Unless Verizon changes its mind about broadband deployment in western Massachusetts or cable operators Charter and Comcast spontaneously expand their service areas, readers of the Berkshire Eagle can expect more of what staff writer Larry Parnass summed up in two words: extreme disappointment.

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