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French Press: U.S. Consumers Ripe for Fleecing By Cable Magnates Like Altice’s Patrick Drahi

The French press continues to report, with some bewilderment, that U.S. consumers are being fleeced by the country’s biggest telecom companies while politicians do nothing to regulate a duopoly market or force more competition to stop the pick-pocketing. The Francophone press is responding to reports that cable baron Patrick Drahi is vacuuming up profits from his American subsidiary Altice USA — which owns Cablevision and Suddenlink — and is likely to get much bigger in 2017, all thanks to the U.S. regulatory landscape.

“Americans live under a corrupt politician-sanctioned broadband monopoly in many places, and this assures telecoms operators in the United States can earn astounding profit margins impossible in European markets,” notes Giga France.

Le Figaro reported this month Altice’s directors had an easy job figuring out where much of the global conglomerate’s future profits would come from: the United States.

“Given the structure of the telecom market, [Altice’s] margin for growth in France is low, whereas in the United States it is considerable,” the newspaper reported. The reason is a persistent lack of competition, made possible by politicians that accepted the recommendations of lobbyists and corporate special interest think tanks on how to structure the broadband market.

Drahi

In the United States, providers have won near-absolute control of their networks and need not share access with competitors. Large telecom companies argued that requiring shared access to their infrastructure would threaten investment and stall broadband network deployment. Ironically, some even argued it would lead to reduced competition. But the reverse turned out to be true and the United States has fallen far behind in competition and network quality, while more traditionally regulated markets in Europe now enjoy low prices, faster internet speeds, and a larger number of competitors vying for consumers’ business.

Wall Street indirectly conspires to keep the status quo by discouraging the entry of new fixed line providers, claiming it will destroy shareholder value and consume billions of investor dollars constructing competing networks that will be unlikely to attract enough subscribers fast enough to give shareholders a timely return on their investment.

With a provider-friendly Trump Administration in power, and more importantly the installation of Ajit Pai, a notorious telecoms-friendly regulator as chairman of the FCC, Altice’s directors consider 2017 to be one of the most inviting years for expansion in the United States.

Le Figaro reports there is plenty of opportunity for Altice’s empire to become more dominant in North America. In France, its SFR unit now holds a 25% share in the fixed line market, but that number is unlikely to grow much considering ongoing price wars that come from fierce competition in France. In the U.S., Altice only holds barely 3% of the market, and Drahi has made no secret he would like to become at least the second-largest provider in the United States.

Les Echos suggested Altice is quietly preparing a full-scale ambush on the U.S. market starting with a much-anticipated IPO expected this year. Wall Street doesn’t welcome Altice entering the U.S. cable business as a market disruptor. Instead, investment banks are willing to loan huge sums to Altice for the purpose of acquiring telecom companies, maintaining the existing duopoly of one cable and one phone company for the majority of Americans.

“In the past, every time he introduced a publicly traded asset, Drahi proceeded with acquisitions: Numericable, in 2013, SFR the following year; and by 2015 Cablevision and Suddenlink in the U.S.A.,” reports Les Echos.

In France, up to four providers compete head to head for fixed line telecom customers. In other parts of Europe, telecom networks are often forced open to competitors. Neither is the case in the States, and consumers are paying very high telecom bills as a result.

Les Echos notes the U.S. cable business is so lucrative, “never before has a French company made such an important investment in the country of Uncle Sam.”

Suddenlink and Cablevision: Consistent source for fat revenue growth for Altice.

Drahi told investors more than a year ago he wanted to eventually generate 50% of Altice’s business overseas, primarily in the profitable U.S.

Altice has so far only bought up smaller cable operators, but observers expect Drahi will aim for much larger targets, including the possibility of buying out a wireless provider or even targeting Comcast, AT&T, or Charter. Les Echos quotes Vincent Maulay, an analyst at Oddo who notes that Drahi may be able to collect future assets inexpensively if Verizon decides to move on an acquisition of Charter. Regulators will likely force the combined company to shed cable assets in New York State where Verizon and Charter currently compete. That would allow Drahi’s Cablevision to pick up divested service areas, perhaps even in Manhattan.

Corporate/Koch Brother-Linked Group Asks FCC to Repeal Charter/Spectrum’s Data Cap Prohibition

A conservative group funded by corporate interests and the Koch Brothers has asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai to answer its petition and move expeditiously to cancel the prohibition of data caps/usage-based pricing as a condition for FCC approval of Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

A number of pro-consumer deal conditions were included as part of the merger transaction’s approval, and won the support of a majority of FCC commissioners under the leadership of former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, appointed by President Barack Obama.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) is hopeful that with Wheeler out of office and a new Republican majority at the FCC under the Trump Administration means the FCC will end requirements that Charter offer unlimited data plans, discounted internet access for low-income consumers, and start allowing Charter to charge fees to Netflix and other content providers to connect to its broadband customers. CEI has every reason to be hopeful, pointing out Chairman Pai is a fan of data caps on residential broadband service, opposes Net Neutrality, and recently effectively killed a Lifeline program that would have extended inexpensive internet access to the poor.

CEI:

As then-Commissioner Pai wrote in 2016, this condition is neither “fair” nor “progressive.” Instead, he called this “the paradigmatic case of the 99% subsidizing the 1%,” as it encourages Charter to raise prices on all consumers in response to costs stemming from the activities of a “bandwidth-hungry few.” Other problematic conditions include the ban on Charter charging “edge providers” a price for interconnection and the requirement that the company operate a “low-income broadband program” for customers who meet certain criteria.

The group is optimistic Pai will oversee the unwinding of Charter’s deal conditions largely pushed by former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, after Pai recently led the charge to revoke another condition required of Charter in return for merger approval – a commitment to expand its cable network to pass at least one million new homes that already receive broadband service from another provider.

Pai also opposed the low-income internet program, calling it “rate regulation.” The CEI claimed the requirement will “undermine Charter’s ability to price its services in an economically rational manner.”

“Hopefully, the FCC’s new leadership will seize this opportunity to take a stand against harmful merger conditions that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand—by granting CEI’s petition,” the group wrote on its blog.

Verizon’s Broken Promise to Wire All of NYC With FiOS Results in Lawsuit

Two years after Verizon promised its FiOS fiber to the home service would be available to every resident of New York City, the city sued Verizon Communications on Monday, alleging Verizon failed to meet its commitment.

The 19-page lawsuit, filed in New York’s Supreme Court, contrasts the city’s interpretation of Verizon’s commitments laid out in a 2008 franchise agreement against Verizon’s claim it has met its obligations. Central to the case is the city’s claim tens of thousands of New Yorkers cannot get FiOS service from Verizon, even though Verizon’s fiber network may be running down the street.

“Verizon must face the consequences for breaking the trust of 8.5 million New Yorkers,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. He added that, “It’s 2017 and we’re done waiting. No corporation — no matter how large or powerful — can break a promise to New Yorkers and get away with it.”

A 2015 audit conducted by the city and testimony given in public hearings confirmed Verizon had failed to wire every building for service, despite what the city believed was Verizon’s promise to do so.

Verizon defended its actions, claiming it had met its obligations to New York City by providing FiOS fiber-to-the-home infrastructure throughout the five boroughs. The problem, according to Verizon, is intransigent building owners that have obstructed Verizon’s entry to get service to tenants. Verizon’s defense does come with some evidence. The company has filed numerous complaints with New York’s Public Service Commission to gain entry to properties in the city that have either ignored Verizon’s efforts to wire their buildings or actively opposed it.

Some landlords claimed no tenants in their building wanted Verizon FiOS and the telephone company wasn’t welcome. Others accused Verizon installers of damaging buildings or performing shoddy work and sought assurances Verizon will meet the building owner’s installation standards. Some live-in building managers have even demanded kickbacks or free service in return for entry. New York State law gives Verizon a right of entry and the company has followed legal channels to eventually gain admittance.

Difficulties with landlords alone cannot account for many other instances where willing customers were told service was not available. In some cases, even city officials seeking FiOS were themselves told repeatedly it was unavailable.

Verizon’s defense is likely to come down to a single industry phrase — “homes passed.”

The former Bloomberg Administration signed an agreement with Verizon that committed Verizon to wire its fiber network citywide. Verizon interpreted the contract to mean installing fiber infrastructure that passes every major property in New York, but not wiring every property for the service. The current de Blasio administration argues the contract means Verizon should be able to reach every customer that wants FiOS service within 7-14 days of receiving an order.

Verizon’s lawyer indirectly conceded Verizon has not made the service available to every household that might want the service.

In a letter sent last week to Anne M. Roest, the commissioner of the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, Craig Silliman, Verizon’s general counsel, wrote:

“[…]We now pass all households in the city and can provide service to over 2.2 million households within seven to 14 days of receiving a service request.”

According to data from Baruch College, New York City had 3,129,147 households as of 2015, leaving at least 900,000 households unaccounted for.

Verizon’s fiber network may run down the street of each of those homes, but the lawsuit contends Verizon has been unwilling or unable to wire them for service.

“Although Verizon claims it ‘passed’ all residential premises, Verizon still does not accept orders from all city residents,” the city audit concluded. “In fact, it still informs residents that service is ‘unavailable’ at an address if their network has not been created on the block.”

The city and several consumer and civic groups have implored Verizon to ‘speed it up’ for the last two years but contend Verizon’s response has been inadequate, which led to the lawsuit.

McConville

Common Cause New York has been pushing for more FiOS service for years and reports consumers are frustrated with Verizon’s inability to deliver service. They now suspect Verizon’s unwillingness to expand FiOS comes from a lack of investment to complete its fiber network.

“People continue to be very frustrated because it appears that Verizon is motivated by what will be most profitable for them — what buildings to wire and what buildings to ignore,” Common Cause New York’s executive director Susan Lerner told the New York Times. “This really is about undertaking an ambitious obligation and then deciding halfway through that it’s not worth it. We are very happy to see the city holding the vendor’s feet to the fire. This is absolutely what should be done.”

Verizon appeared frustrated for another reason, shared by company spokesman Raymond McConville.

“On a day where the city is preparing for the biggest blizzard of the season, it’s sad that the mayor’s focus is on pursuing a frivolous lawsuit,” McConville wrote in an email to the Times. “The de Blasio administration is disingenuously attempting to rewrite the terms of an agreement made with its predecessor and is acting in its own political self-interests that are completely at odds with what’s best for New Yorkers. We plan to vigorously fight the city’s allegations.”

And if that doesn’t work, McConville threatened Verizon may not seek a franchise renewal when the current one ends in three years.

Consumer Action Alert: Charter/Spectrum Customers Should Opt Out of Mandated Arbitration

Charter Communications/Spectrum customers (including former Bright House and Time Warner Cable customers) need to take a moment to protect their right to collect damages from future class action cases likely to be filed over the company’s alleged failure to deliver advertised broadband speeds and in the case of Time Warner Cable, the alleged provision of obsolete cable modems for which the cable operator charged customers $10/month.

Charter customers are finding this fine print notice on their cable bills designed to strip away their right to collect potentially substantial settlements that could eventually exceed $100 because of inadequate service:

The terms and conditions applicable to your services contain a binding arbitration provision, which includes a waiver of class actions and provisions for opting out of arbitration and affects your rights with respect to all services.

Customers can protect their rights by sending this short letter to Charter’s general counsel within the next 30 days, which will opt you out of company-friendly mandated arbitration and allow you to participate in future class action cases and settlements. The letter will have no impact on your service or any promotional offers you receive.

March 17, 2017

VP and Associate General Counsel, Litigation
Charter Communications
12405 Powerscourt Dr.
St. Louis, MO 63131

Re: Arbitration Opt-Out

To Whom It May Concern,

As per your subscriber notice, this letter serves as my notice to you that I wish to opt out of Charter Communication’s arbitration provisions and do not want to be bound by that condition. I do not wish to resolve disputes with Charter through arbitration.

I would appreciate receiving confirmation you have received this letter and have accepted this notification.

Subscriber Name (as shown on bill): 
Subscriber Address:
City/St/Zip Code:
My Account Number (as shown on bill): 

Yours very truly,

//Signature
Printed Name

“50 Shades of Grey” Community Broadband Ban Bill Ties the Hands of Missouri Communities

Emery

It’s 2017 and a lot of Missouri residents are still tortured by the lack of access to basic broadband service, and if a community broadband ban bill becomes state law it will remain that way for years to come.

SB 186 is essentially a copy of last year’s community broadband ban that eventually died in the legislature. Just like last year, many of the sponsors and promoters of the latest attempt to impose a municipal broadband ban have close ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and receive copious amounts of money from Missouri’s largest telecom companies. Some even win awards from the state’s biggest telecom lobbyists.

State Sen. Ed Emery (R-Lamar) loves the headlines he attracts from throwing ideological bombs into the public debate (he called homosexuality a mental illness, compared public education to slavery and a pathway to prison, and questioned whether former president Barack Obama was actually an American citizen). But he is not in touch with the rural residents in his state who have had their pleas for broadband service ignored by AT&T and other telecom companies for years.

Emery is a big fan of ALEC and serves as a Missouri state chairman. In 2015 he told an audience at an ALEC event he found the group’s efforts inspiring and helpful. ALEC acts as a giant clearinghouse for corporate-inspired legislation that ends up in the hands of friendly state legislators. ALEC’s model bills, including one banning municipal broadband, win passage in part because state legislatures do not get the kind of media attention and public scrutiny seen in Washington. SB 186, its predecessor, and other similar bills introduced in other states are frequently ghostwritten by telecom company lawyers and lobbyists and are designed to stop municipal broadband networks before they can get started.

Emery’s current bill is designed to apply a “scorched earth” response to communities trying to find ways to get rural broadband service up and running after a decade of being ignored by private telecom companies. It’s corporate protectionism and welfare at its finest, with a thicket of language that would force public providers into price and speed regulation. Emery’s bill would interfere with the types of loan agreements communities could contemplate to provide the service, and the language required for a mandatory referendum is heavily slanted to suggest such service is redundant and unnecessary. Emery’s bill also offers assurances his business friends could get gigabit speeds from community-owned providers, but not necessarily consumers.

Like the failed broadband hit bill introduced in Virginia, SB 186 is an ironic piece of legislation, heavy-handed with regulation and micromanagement and anchored with bureaucratic requirements designed to guarantee disappointment and costly failure. Emery’s career in public life has been spent railing against costly and unnecessary overregulation, yet his bill exemplifies both in action.

SB 186 also protects the status quo for broadband in Missouri, which is dreadful outside of major cities. It would assure incumbent telecom companies won’t face any service-improving competition and keep municipalities off their turf. For example, Columbia Water and Light has a “dark fiber” institutional fiber network at its disposal that is woefully underutilized. In addition to helping provide some connectivity for local government functions, the city-owned network also leases connections to hospitals and other public buildings, as well as some businesses. But the utility does not sell internet service itself.

The city believes much of the fiber network’s capacity is sitting un-utilized and could prove a valuable asset to the local connectivity economy. With the fiber already in place, expanding the network could be a cost-effective/common sense way to reach city residents that want better internet service than what incumbents are offering, and the city is more than willing to open the network up to those incumbents as well. SB 186 could eliminate that option in Missouri, just to protect the same private companies that have delivered underwhelming service for years.

In cities like Centralia, now exploring enhanced smart grid technology to improve the area’s electricity infrastructure, SB 186 would make the upgrade much more costly. Smart grid technology relies on fiber optic technology, often laid deep into neighborhoods and office parks. Only a tiny portion of that capacity is used to monitor utility infrastructure. The rest of the bandwidth on the fiber optic cable — already in place, could easily offer gigabit broadband service to every resident and business, especially if the city wires fiber to or near individual utility meters. That wouldn’t be allowed under SB 186 either, so communities like Centralia could not recoup some of the cost of the fiber optic technology by selling broadband service. That’s great news for companies like AT&T, CenturyLink, and Charter Communications. It’s also a relief for the phone companies who need not invest in their networks to offer something better than 20th century DSL.

Rural America: not a broadband-a-plenty

Emery offers two contradictory defenses for his bill:

  1. It is necessary to protect taxpayers from municipal broadband which Emery calls “unsuccessful, leaving ratepayers to cover debt costs.” But when asked by local media for any examples of a Missouri public broadband project that has failed, he could not.
  2. “We need more private-sector opportunities and not drive them out or hinder offerings coming into a community.”

In other words, Emery believes all public broadband networks are failures -and- they represent a major threat to private telecom companies that will be discouraged from investing in broadband expansion because a publicly owned competitor could be ready to “drive them out.”

Of course, neither is true. In rural Missouri there is no line of eager telecom companies seeking to expand broadband service into unprofitable rural communities and where only one broadband provider exists, there is no pressure to improve service quality or speed. In the first instance, there is no investment by private companies to discourage and in the second, the presence of a new provider encourages upgrades and investment. It’s a concept called “competition.” Sen. Emery would have a difficult time providing the name(s) of telecom companies that exited a community because of the presence of a municipal broadband alternative.

Rural farms are among the least likely places to get adequate internet service.

Sen. Emery’s family has a feed and grain business background, and those businesses (as well as Missouri’s farmers) are among the hardest hit economically by the lack of suitable broadband. But Emery is now far away from the business his father and grandfather ran. These days, he harvests big dollar contributions from some of the country’s largest corporations and much of his last campaign was financed by just two families — one with a vendetta against unions and the other — Rex Sinquefield — bucking to be Missouri’s own version of the Koch Brothers, who has his own private agenda he’d like enacted into law. Sinquefield has close ties to the Grow Missouri PAC, that also has close ties to the Club for Growth, ALEC, and the Koch Brothers’ backed Americans for Prosperity. Birds of a feather flock together.

Missouri’s biggest telecom companies are also generous contributors to Sen. Emery, which isn’t a surprise considering his bill and voting record directly benefits their businesses in the state. That may explain why the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association — the state’s top cable lobbying group — gave Emery its Legislator of the Year award. Not to be outdone, the phone companies’ Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association gave Emery its own Leadership Award. Anyone who can introduce a bill that eliminates the best prospect of competition in suburban and rural Missouri for years is probably worthy of both.

In return for favors like that, some familiar names appear at the top of Emery’s list of campaign contributors:

  • AT&T ($6,000)
  • Comcast ($4,000)
  • Verizon Communications ($4,000)
  • CenturyLink ($3,500)
  • Charter ($2,000)
  • Time Warner Cable ($1,500)
  • Charter Communications ($1,325)
  • Sprint ($1,000)

Emery clearly listens to their interests more than average Missouri consumers still searching for broadband service.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last summer that there are significant gaps in broadband coverage even in St. Louis County, where one million residents live. “Fringe suburban spots” too costly to meet Return On Investment requirements guarantee no service, indefinitely. In St. Clair County, 5,000 homes are without broadband for the same reason. In large parts of the state, what constitutes broadband no longer meets that definition — 25Mbps, as established by the FCC. Every telephone ratepayer pays a “universal service fee” on their phone bill, in part to extend broadband into rural areas. But that extension has been spotty because not every phone company accepts the money and the conditions that come with it to broaden their reach. That leaves many rural Missourians with <1Mbps DSL service. That’s the case in Wildwood, where streaming media is out of the question because internet speeds are too low.

The Broadband Berlin Wall: Wildwood, Mo. — Broadband service is easily available to the east of Highway 109. But to the west, service is spotty to non-existent.

Wildwood — in western St. Louis County, is living in “Third World conditions,” even though “we’re not in rural Timbuktu,” according to resident Marilyn Gilbert. It’s also comparable to Cold War-era Berlin, except in reverse. Eastern Wildwood offers residents broadband options from both Charter and AT&T. But the Broadband Berlin Wall dividing the community — Highway 109, separates the broadband haves’ from the have-nots’. The larger part of Wildwood to the west, now growing with new housing and businesses, is a broadband swamp with few, if any choices for local residents.

Gilbert “enjoys” AT&T DSL and speeds that never come close to 1Mbps. It is her only option.

“I tried to download my Windows update and it timed out,” she said. “The amount of time you waste waiting for things to open up or download!”

Remember, this is in St. Louis County, the old home for the headquarters of Charter Communications, which dominates the city of St. Louis.

Despite earning billions every year from the broadband business, Charter has refused to extend its lines of service into the western half of Wildwood, despite efforts to attract the company that date back six years. Residents report broadband availability is among their top concerns taken to local officials, who have in turn sought help from Charter, AT&T, and the state legislature.

The city of Wildwood’s efforts were met with a demand by Charter to pay the cable company $3 million in taxpayer funds to extend service. The city said no.

“The comment we hear constantly is that kids need high-speed (internet) in order to access their school work,” said Wildwood councilman Larry McGowen. “These days, internet is just like another utility. It has become every bit as important in people’s lives as electricity.”

But it apparently is not important enough to allow Wildwood and other communities the option of constructing their own local broadband solutions for residents if Emery’s bill becomes law.

Ironically, the same companies that refuse to extend their service into rural Missouri are also vehemently opposed to letting local governments do it in their absence.

The stalemate has caused some residents to sell their homes and move, just to get internet access. David Norell left town because he couldn’t survive with satellite internet service, which costs $80 a month and offers spotty service with a low data allowance.

That makes Emery’s bill, and others like it, a travesty. Banning local communities from doing the job large for-profit companies won’t seems nothing short of corporate protectionism. After all, as critics of Emery’s bill charge, how can a local government unfairly compete with a company that doesn’t compete at all? Also of concern is the fact those residents that do get token DSL service from AT&T may be trapped using it forever if Emery’s bill keeps better and faster service from co-ops and other public broadband options off the table.

If it seems like Sen. Emery is putting the interests of big telecom companies – many dues-paying members of ALEC – above those of his constituents, perhaps he is. Consider the fact Emery is a state chairman at ALEC, an organization that included this loyalty pledge in its draft state chair agreement:

I will act with care and loyalty and put the interests of the organization (ALEC) first.

Emery has taken heat for his ongoing love affair with ALEC before, including an ethics complaint about a $3,000 meal at the Dallas Chop House where Emery ate. ALEC’s corporate members picked up the tab. That kind of unethical conflict of interest, along with the aforementioned loyalty pledge, infuriated the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Mr. Emery and his ilk can believe what they want, but they should play no part in allowing corporations to hide their agendas, and their lobbying expenses, by pretending to be something they are not. The proof is in ALEC’s actions, which as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank outlined, hid itself behind closed doors in a meeting last week in the nation’s capital, pushing reporters away while claiming they had nothing to hide.

No, ALEC exists solely to hide. To hide money. To hide agendas. To hide its hijacking of democracy.

Lawmakers who care about the constitution and their commitment to voters should be fleeing faster than the corporations who realize ALEC is simply a bad investment.

Emery at a 2015 ALEC event.

It was not an isolated incident. Ed and his wife Rebecca Emery also enjoyed a $141.10 meal paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Association. It’s safe to assume nobody had just a small salad. Other meals and drinks were courtesy of AT&T and CenturyLink. (Peabody Energy footed the bill for the Emerys’ taxi rides back and forth.)

When the wining and dining ended, the lobbyists were back with campaign contribution checks in hand.

These kinds of municipal broadband bans are toxic to economic development for rural communities that already face built-in economic and infrastructure disadvantages. The 21st century digital knowledge economy has the potential to make rural America equally competitive, assuming there is adequate infrastructure in place to participate.

Relying on private investment alone can work in urban areas where broadband profits are easy because the essential infrastructure to provide the service was constructed and paid for decades ago, originally to deliver telephone and television service. Rural areas suffer from deteriorated wireline infrastructure some phone companies want to abandon altogether and no cable broadband service at all.

Charter and AT&T first answer to shareholders. Local governments answer to their residents. Legislators are supposed to do the same. For Mr. Emery, loyalty to the interests of ALEC and the state’s telecommunications companies seems clear. It’s too bad his bill suggests a lot less loyalty to the voters in his district that need internet access or better broadband are will assuredly not get it if this bill ever becomes state law.

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