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Viacom Demands 100% Rate Increases for Hundreds of Small Cable Systems, Military Bases

viacom networksSmall cable systems across the country and on overseas military bases are being granted hourly reprieves that are keeping up to 24 Viacom-owned cable channels on the air after negotiations to extend an agreement with their program buyer stalled.

Cable operators belonging to the National Cable TV Cooperative, which represents independent cable systems on cable programming matters, report Viacom is demanding an unprecedented 100 percent rate increase for its networks and a guaranteed rate hike of 10% annually on each of its channels.

Viacom’s demands would cost each subscriber at least $4 a month, noted Jack Capparell, general manager of Service Electric’s cable system in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania. Service Electric is a private, family owned cable business with 250,000 subscribers in central and northeastern Pennsylvania and northwestern New Jersey.

The impasse also affects cable systems serving American military bases. Americable has notified subscribers in Yokosuka, Atsugi, Iwakuni, and Sasebo, Japan Viacom was likely to cut off 10 of its cable channels to military families sometime today. Allied Telesis, which offers service to Air Force bases in Japan is also expected to lose programming.

cableoneNCTC members complain Viacom requires cable systems to carry nearly all of its lineup, including lesser-known channels few customers have even heard of, much less want. Even if a cable system chooses not to air a Viacom channel, Viacom’s contracts require cable providers to pay for them if they want to carry Viacom’s most popular networks.

Some cable systems are breaking away from NCTC’s negotiations and opening one on one talks with Viacom. Metrocast secured an agreement for its customers earlier today by negotiating directly with Viacom.

viacomFor most affected cable operators, there is a ‘wait and see what happens’ approach. Others, including Cable ONE, have already moved to replace the Viacom networks with other channels.

“Viacom asked for a rate increase greater than 100%, despite the fact that viewing is down on 12 of their 15 networks – some by more than 30% since 2010,” said Cable ONE. “We asked Viacom to either reduce their rates or allow us to drop some of their less popular networks to reduce the total cost. They refused these reasonable requests.”

Logo_Service-ElectricEarlier today, Cable ONE didn’t wait for Viacom to pull the plug. They pulled it themselves.

“Cable ONE has let these networks go and expects to add many top-rated networks you’ve requested and expand several other highly requested networks to our most popular level of service. Some of the new networks include BBC America, Sprout, Investigation Discovery, the Blaze, Hallmark Channel, National Geographic, TV One, Sundance, and more,” said the company, which expects to publish a full list of the new networks on Wednesday.

Viacom responded with a news release tailored for each affected provider:

GCI_Color_LogoWe are offering Service Electric a double-digit discount off of our standard rate card. It is a better deal than HUNDREDS of other TV providers in the country have agreed to. We have been actively trying to get a deal done with Service Electric for months and they have refused to negotiate in any meaningful way. And now, on top of this, Service Electric is throwing out numbers which simply aren’t true. Our expiring deal with Service Electric is nearly five years old. In that time, we have been great partners and given Service Electric more channels, more on demand content and access to our content beyond the TV – at no additional cost. We don’t understand why Service Electric has chosen to negotiate in this manner. And now, as a result of their lack of interest in coming to a mutually beneficial agreement, you are at risk of losing 19 Viacom networks. We are serious about getting a deal done.

Virtually the entire state of Alaska is also affected.

“We’ve unified to fight for Alaskans and to work toward a fair, long-term agreement that keeps prices stable for our customers,” said Paul Landes, GCI senior vice president. “Viacom wants a rate increase that is 40 times that of the rate of inflation. Alaska pay TV providers, along with 700 small to mid-sized operators nationally, are saying ‘no’ to Viacom’s take all 26 channels or nothing demands.”

GCI is joined by Alaskan providers MTA and KPU in the dispute.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cable ONE Viacom Channels Removed New Channels Added 4-1-14.mp4

Cable ONE released this video earlier today informing customers they were dropping Viacom networks. (1:00)

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Frustration Central: Charter Communications’ Digital Conversion Irritates Cities, Customers

Phillip Dampier March 11, 2014 Broadband Speed, Charter, Consumer News, HissyFitWatch No Comments

all digitalCharter Communications’ march to all-digital service is one big Excedrin headache for many of the communities enduring the cable company’s conversion.

Charter is embarked on a campaign to end analog cable television service, freeing up bandwidth to offer more HD channels and increase broadband speeds. But the switch to digital has been accompanied by frequent service disruptions and outages.

In Texas, customers complain their digital channels are often frozen or pixelated. In Casper, Wyo., where Charter acquired an older cable system from Cablevision that was originally built by Bresnan Communications, customers’ complaints range from inconsistent service and slow response times to loss of sound and frozen video during airing of City Council meetings.

But some of the loudest concerns about Charter originate from the Outer Banks of North Carolina where customers are finding the switch to digital can be very costly.

Tourism is a major part of the local economy and the Outer Banks are filled with seasonal homes, rental condos and hotels. Many property owners maintain seasonal accounts with Charter Cable, only active during the tourist season. Some hotel owners notified about Charter’s plans to transition towards digital service worked with the cable company to buy televisions that would not need additional equipment to work after the switch. With the cable company’s recommendations, some hotel chains purchased dozens or even hundreds of digital-ready television sets installed in rooms that were ready for the switch.

Charter_logoOnly recently, Charter notified customers they also planned to encrypt the basic lineup, rendering the digital televisions useless without the additional cost and inconvenience of installing Charter’s digital set-top boxes. Although Charter will temporarily offer customers free rental of the boxes, after the offer expires, customers will pay Charter $6.99 a month for each box. For some upper end condos, the cost of renting multiple boxes will exceed the cost of the cable TV package.

The Outer Banks Voice details several other customer complaints:

With the older analog systems, many owners flat mounted their televisions to walls and had the cable wired directly into the television, out of sight. With boxes now required, rental homeowners will need to figure out where to place the box and how to run the cables to the set.

In addition, rental companies and homeowners will need to keep track of numerous remotes and keeping those remotes supplied with working batteries.

[...] Thus far, Charter is not offering boxes for sale, so owners cannot absorb the cost over the long-run use of the box, and there appears to be some confusion on whether homes with five or more televisions will require a “Pro Installation” at extra cost to ensure signal strength is sufficient.

If such an installation is required, owners and rental management companies will also be required to arrange access for Charter installers.

Rental condos are also faced with yet another logistic hurdle.

Many condos include cable television fees in their monthly association dues, and the cable contracts for all units are in the name of the condo association.

To obtain boxes, condo owners are now going to be required to set up their own individual accounts, often from an out-of-state location, and then determine how to get the boxes installed.

Signal strength is also a concern in condo projects. Even with analog signals, the multiple connections in one area make reception fuzzy and of low quality.

A small sample of complaints found all over Charter's social media pages.

A small sample of complaints found all over Charter’s social media pages.

Charter Communications shared their side of the story about the digital conversion:

Outer Banks, N.C.

Outer Banks, N.C.

Charter customers are notified by newspaper, direct mail, bill messages, phone calls from Charter representatives, and Charter commercial spots beginning at least 30 days prior to their cutover. Charter is making it easy for customers to receive one or more digital boxes at no cost for one, two or five years, depending on the customer’s programming package and other qualifying factors.

Customers that need less than four boxes can have them shipped directly to their home by calling 1-888-GET-CHARTER or pick them up at a Charter Store.

Customers that live out of town, that own vacation homes, can authorize personnel with their property management company or other specified individuals to pick up their boxes. Customers must first authorize those individuals and add them to their account by calling 1-888-GET-CHARTER. The customer account owner can rescind authorization of individuals at any time.

Property Management companies or authorized individuals can then obtain up to five set-top boxes at a Charter Store.

Customers needing more than five boxes should contact Charter 1-888-GET-CHARTER. A professional technician will be scheduled to assist customers with the installation.

Charter Stores are currently operating with expanded hours to accommodate customers during this all-digital project. Charter Store hours will also be expanded in April where peak volume is expected.

Commercial properties have several options available and can work with their Charter Business account representative on the best solution for their business.

Due to advances in technology, solutions available may involve the need for additional equipment in order to provide the best possible cable, Internet and voice products for our customers.

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HissyFitWatch: Canadian Telecom Companies Annoyed Consumers Getting The Upper Hand

Canadians are demanding a better deal from their cable and phone companies and they are forced to respond.

Canadians are demanding a better deal from their cable and phone companies and they are forced to respond.

As the United States battles back against the introduction of usage caps and rising prices for broadband service, increased competition and regulated open wholesale access to some of Canada’s largest broadband providers have given Canadians an advantage in forcing providers to cut prices and improve service.

Canadians can now easily get unlimited broadband access from one of several independent ISPs that piggyback service on cable and phone networks. Some large ISPs have even introduced all-you-can eat broadband options for customers long-capped by the handful of big players. As customers consider switching providers, cable and phone companies have been forced to cut prices, especially for their best customers. Even cell service is now up for negotiation.

The more services a customer bundles with their provider, the bigger the discount they can negotiate, say analysts who track customer retention. Bell, Rogers, Telus, and others have a major interest keeping your business, even if it means reducing your price.

“It’s far more lucrative for the telecom company to keep you there for the third or fourth service,” telecom analyst Troy Crandall told AP. It cuts down on marketing, service and installation calls, he added.

Getting the best deal often depends on your services, payment history, and how long you have been a customer. Cellphone discounts are the hardest to win, but customers are getting them if they have been loyal, carry a large balance and almost never pay late.

telus shawBigger discounts can be had for television and Internet service — cable television remains immensely profitable in Canada and broadband is cheap to offer, especially in cities. Americans often pay $80 or more for digital cable television packages, Canadians pay an average of $60.

Internet service in Canada now averages $45 a month, but many plans include usage caps. It costs more to take to the cap off.

Because of Canada’s past usage cap pervasiveness, online video is not as plentiful in Canada as it is in the United States. There has been considerably less cord-cutting in the north. Despite that, Canadians are ravenous online viewers of what they can find to watch (either legally or otherwise). As usage allowances disappear or become more generous, online video and the Internet will continue to grow in importance for service providers.

Customers should negotiate with their provider for a better deal, particularly if Bell’s Fibe TV is in town. Bell has been among the most aggressive in price cutting its fiber to the neighborhood television service for new customers ready to say goodbye to Rogers or Vidéotron.

Shaw and Telus battle for market share in the west and also have room to cut customer bills and still make a handsome profit.

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Time Warner Cable Cuts Off Super Bowl in SoCal; Get Your Credit

Phillip Dampier February 4, 2014 Consumer News, HissyFitWatch, Time Warner Cable, Video 2 Comments

twc laTime Warner Cable will provide a free pay-per-view movie or a $5 gift card to Los Angeles-area customers after the cable company lost the Standard Definition signal of Fox affiliate KTTV for about an hour during the Super Bowl on Sunday.

KTTV’s signal was lost just before halftime in and around Los Angeles County from Hacienda Heights and Hancock Park all the way to Santa Monica, as well in parts of Ventura County. Blank screens prompted a deluge of complaint calls to Time Warner Cable’s customer service line, many met with repeated busy signals.

“I’d rather have cable in North Korea than Time Warner Cable,” tweeted Paige Graham. “Time Warner Cable: Your customer service is worse than Denver’s defense,” added Alex Stein.

twcGreenAlthough analog cable customers were forced to watch a Spanish language channel’s coverage of the game, those viewing KTTV’s HD signal on Time Warner Cable were unaffected by the disruption.

For the frustration, Time Warner Cable is offering what they call “a gift of appreciation.”

“Although most of our customers didn’t experience an interruption, we want to express our sincere apologies to all Time Warner Cable TV customers in the Los Angeles area,” said Deborah Picciolo, senior vice president of operations at Time Warner Cable. “Digital TV customers will receive a credit for the cost of an On Demand movie once purchased, and analog customers will receive a $5 gift card. These will be provided automatically; no customer action is necessary.”

Customers should contact customer service if their free pay-per-view movie credit doesn’t appear on a future bill or if the gift card never arrives.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTLA Los Angeles Time Warner Cable Resolves Service Outage 2-2-14.flv

KTLA in Los Angeles covered Super Bowl parties in Southern California and frustrated Time Warner Cable subscribers that lost the game for about an hour. (2:22)

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PowerPlay: AT&T Says Google Fiber Cannot Use Its Utility Poles in Austin

att poleAT&T has informed Google it will not allow the search engine company to use its utility poles to build a fiber optic network that will compete with AT&T’s own GigaPower fiber service, which launched in Austin this week.

Current rules require utilities to provide non-discriminatory access to poles for all electric and telecommunications companies. AT&T has declared Google is neither, but is willing to work with the company once it is “qualified,” said Tracy King, AT&T’s vice president for public affairs.

“By challenging the city to force an employer to share its equipment contrary to federal law and without transparency, Google appears to be demanding concessions never provided any other entity before,” said King.

The dispute now threatens to involve Austin’s city council, which fears AT&T’s position could result in thousands of new utility poles being installed next to AT&T-owned poles. City officials warn they are willing to settle the matter by changing the rules for all utility companies, using their authority as the owner of the land on which the utility poles are placed.

“We don’t want people to put up their own poles,” Rondella Hawkins, Austin’s telecommunications and regulatory affairs officer, told the Austin-American Statesman. “We want to avoid anybody putting up redundant utility poles. Could you imagine a city where all the (telecommunications) providers individually have their own utility poles? It would be a mess.”

Google said it wants to bring its fiber network to Austin in the least disruptive way possible, and AT&T’s actions may complicate the project.

Martinez

Martinez

The proposed rules change threatened by the city council brought immediate opposition from both AT&T and the unions that represent AT&T workers.

“The city of Austin should not jump into what amounts to a business dispute and create winners and losers before everyone can present data on all the stakes that are involved,” wrote Becky Moeller, president of the Texas AFL-CIO.

This afternoon, with the rules change pending on the calendar, Google and AT&T apparently decided to work out the dispute before the city imposed a solution.

“After hard work, lots of meetings and tons of input – AT&T and Google agree to negotiate their issues with the city,” Austin council member Mike Martinez wrote on his Facebook page. “A postponement of [the ordinance change] is highly likely. Thank you to them and all who helped make this happen.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KVUE Austin Dispute Between Google ATT 12-11-13.mp4

KVUE in Austin reports the pole attachment dispute between AT&T and Google threatens to involve the city council. (3:09)

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Father of DSL Bashes Fiber Broadband as a Waste of Money; “Verizon Loses $800 Per Customer”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ABC Extended interview with Dr John Cioffi -- Father of DSL 11-18-13.mp4

Dr. John Cioffi, the ”Father of DSL” doesn’t think much of fiber to the home service, suggesting it is a waste of money and delivers budget-busting losses to providers. He has the ear of the man in charge of overseeing Australia’s National Broadband Network, Communications Minister John Turnbull. Turnbull’s public statements imply he supports Cioffi’s approach – a hybrid fiber-copper network similar to AT&T U-verse.

By adopting cheaper VDSL technology, Cioffi claims providers can avoid the “$800 unrecoverable loss per customer Verizon FiOS has experienced” bringing fiber to the home. He also claims fiber to the home service isn’t as robust as fiber proponents claim, with flimsy, easy-to-break fiber cables and loads of service calls commonplace among some European providers.

Few media interviews, including this one with ABC Television, bother to fully disclose how Cioffi has a big dog in the broadband technology fight. Cioffi founded ASSIA, Inc., a firm that markets products and services to DSL providers. ASSIA is backed by investments from AT&T, its first customer, and a handful of overseas telephone companies. Cioffi estimates ASSIA software is used to manage 90 percent of existing DSL accounts in the United States and is a fundamental part of AT&T’s efforts to increase U-verse speeds. Dismantling DSL in favor of fiber could have a marked impact on ASSIA’s profits. (8:47)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Malcolm Turnbull Discussion with Father of DSL John Cioffi Part 1 11-18-13.mp4

Australia’s new Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull talks with Dr. John Cioffi about the differences between VDSL and fiber technologies. Cioffi bashes one form of fiber to the home service dubbed “GPON” because it shares infrastructure. Cioffi claims fiber speeds drop to 20Mbps when a few dozen people share a GPON connection. When in Paris, Cioffi claims his shared fiber connection maxed out at 2.5Mbps while ADSL still ran at 6Mbps. (3:52)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Malcolm Turnbull Discussion with Father of DSL John Cioffi Part 2 11-18-13.mp4

Unsurprisingly, Cioffi claims his company’s software is essential for a good vectored VDSL user experience. Cioffi also claims VDSL can easily beat GPON fiber broadband speeds, a very controversial claim. In Cioffi’s view, even Wi-Fi can perform better than fiber. Finally, Cioffi claims Google is spending $8,000 per customer to deploy its fiber to the home network, when VDSL can do the job for much less money. (2:58)

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HissyFitWatch: Cablevision Ends Discounts for Disloyal Subscribers; One Promotion Per Customer

'Disloyal Cablevision customers looking for discounts are dead to us.'

‘Disloyal Cablevision customers looking for discounts are dead to us.’

Cablevision is fed up with disloyal customers bouncing between the cable company and other providers when promotional discounts expire.

After losing 13,000 broadband, 18,000 voice, and 37,000 television customers, Cablevision CEO Jim Dolan said the company has stopped offering any further discounts to customers that received them once before.

“The customer that has been bouncing from one company to another on promotional/repetitive discounts has hit a dead-end with us,” Dolan told Wall Street analysts during a conference call.

All customers with promotions will now be tracked to prevent extensions or further discounts once the special rates expire. Dolan confirmed the ban will also extend to customer retention offers.

Customers who shop primarily on price in Cablevision’s service area have traditionally flipped between AT&T U-verse, Verizon FiOS and the cable company every few years, usually switching after a promotion expires or rates are increased. Because of fierce price competition, new customers can receive a triple play package of broadband, phone, and television service — including equipment, for less than $85 a month for at least one year. Regular prices are considerably higher.

Cablevision lost most of its departing New York and New Jersey customers to Verizon FiOS, but has been more successful fending off competition in Connecticut, where AT&T has the least capable broadband network among the three providers.

cablevisionAll three companies have attempted price increases over the last few years with mixed results. Cablevision’s eight percent rate hike on broadband this year may have been too much for some customers who shopped around and found a better deal with the phone company.

Despite the loss in customers, Dolan remains firmly committed to more rate hikes, especially for broadband service, noting its speed and features (including an extensive Wi-Fi network) deliver enough value to sustain further price increases.

Cablevision clearly hopes competitors follow its lead and end promotional rate double-dipping as well. If they do, customers will find themselves locked in with regular pricing regardless of the provider they choose.

Some analysts are skeptical Cablevision’s hard-line will last, especially if subscriber losses mount. Cable operators have attempted to restrict promotions in the past but tend to ease them if market share suffers. Despite the third quarter customer retreat, Cablevision’s rate hikes delivered $336 million in broadband revenue during the last three months, an increase from $308 million earned the same time last year.

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HissyFitWatch: ‘Tea Party Ted’s’ One Man Blockade of Obama’s FCC Nominee

Cruz Control

Cruz Control

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) has blocked the Senate from voting to confirm Tom Wheeler, the Obama Administration’s pick for the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

Cruz, a Tea Party favorite, does not object to Wheeler’s credentials. He’s upset Wheeler might support a regulatory implementation of portions of the Disclose Act, a bill requiring full disclosure of who pays for political advertising. The bill would require corporations, super PACs, astroturf groups and other special interests to report to the Federal Election Commission when they spend more than $10,000 on airtime for campaign ads.

Cruz and several other Republican senators wrote the FCC in April to warn the bill violates corporate First Amendment speech rights and was unconstitutional.

With no chance the legislation will pass a Republican-controlled House and deadlocked Senate, the bill’s supporters have turned to the FCC with the idea the agency could act independently to require campaign ad disclosures, a suggestion that infuriated conservative Republicans who disapprove of any enhanced oversight powers for the regulator.

Cruz placed a formal hold on Wheeler’s nomination last week as the Senate prepared to vote an end to the 16-day federal government shutdown.

A spokesman from Cruz’s office made it clear as long as Wheeler continued to vacillate on a commitment not to regulate campaign ads, he will not get an up or down vote on his nomination in the Senate.

Observers suggest Cruz’s hold will stall spectrum auctions and, if extended beyond the fall, could eventually freeze Internet expansion programs for schools and libraries.

Acting FCC chairwoman Mignon Clyburn will continue in that role until Wheeler gets confirmed or another appointee is nominated and approved.

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Intrigue at Chapter 11 LightSquared: Dish’s Charlie Ergen vs. Harbinger’s Phil Falcone

Failure, Squared

LightSquared, the ill-fated venture to bring nationwide 4G wireless broadband to the masses may be all but gone and forgotten in bankruptcy reorganization proceedings, but the wireless spectrum it controls and the drama surrounding it is not.

A battle between billionaires and the hedge funds they support has broken out over who will ultimately control the failed venture — a hedge fund manager deep in LightSquared debt or the richest man in Colorado that often finds a way to get his way.

Harbinger Capital Partners’ Phil Falcone

Falcone

Falcone

Phil Falcone earned his first fortune trading junk bonds in the 1980s. In 2001, he launched Harbinger Capital Partners and by 2007, Falcone and his investors were well-positioned for a blizzard of cash betting against sub-prime mortgages just before the housing collapse and credit crisis that followed. Falcone took home $1.7 billion in compensation that year while an epidemic of foreclosures and upside down mortgages was just getting started.

In late 2008, when the economy was in free-fall, Falcone suspended or limited withdrawals from his largest funds, upsetting investors who couldn’t get their money out. But Falcone reportedly gave special treatment to certain large investors (sources say Goldman Sachs is among them) who were able to clear out their exposed accounts before the losses piled up.

By 2009, Falcone was again making money — so much he vastly underestimated his federal and state tax bills. What’s a cash-strapped billionaire to do? Quietly loan himself $113.2 million from one of his investment funds at a favorable interest rate and keep it a secret from investors for five months. When they eventually found out, they were understandably disturbed. Falcone had barred those same investors from cashing out of the fund he borrowed from.

The Securities and Exchange Commission was not happy either and filed charges against Falcone.

“Today’s charges read like the final exam in a graduate school course in how to operate a hedge fund unlawfully,” Robert Khuzami, director of the S.E.C.’s division of enforcement, said in a statement. “Clients and market participants alike were victimized as Falcone unscrupulously used fund assets to pay his personal taxes, manipulated the market for certain bonds, favored some clients at the expense of others, and violated trading rules intended to prohibit manipulative short sales.”

Despite the publicity generated by the SEC, investors who appreciated Falcone’s ability to earn them money allowed them turn a blind eye to the ethics questions and pour money into Falcone’s latest venture — a wireless network known as LightSquared.

LightSquared was preparing to launch a unique nationwide 4G LTE mobile broadband network powered by satellites and ground-based cell towers, selling wholesale access to third-party wireless companies able to market the service under their own brand. Falcone’s funds poured nearly $3 billion dollars into the venture while getting a waiver from the government to operate high-powered transmitters on the “L” band — 1525-1559 MHz. LightSquared’s plans alarmed the next door neighbors — GPS satellites facing interference issues that would hurt the accuracy of precise location information provided to millions of tracking devices on the “L1″ band — 1559 to 1610 MHz.

Initial testing showed that significant interference from the prototype ground-based transmitters would occur and potentially could cripple aviation and public safety GPS users. The FCC eventually withdrew permission for LightSquared to run its network as planned, a potential death-blow to the venture.

Creditors grew anxious wondering how LightSquared would be in a position to repay its loans when it was unable to launch its wireless network.

In May 2012, creditors forced the issue and LightSquared filed for bankruptcy protection, listing assets of $4.48 billion and debts of $2.29 billion. Falcone claimed the bankruptcy filing would give the company more time to overcome the FCC’s objections to its network operations plan. Falcone estimated it would take two years to secure a resolution. Analysts familiar with the FCC suggested Falcone might die of old age before the agency gave way.

Falcone’s subsequent efforts to win back control of the venture have been made more difficult because one man has been quietly buying up large amounts of LightSquared’s debt with designs on the venture’s spectrum.

Dish Networks’ Charles Ergen

dish logoWith LightSquared’s debt trading at around 50 cents on the dollar, Charlie Ergen went shopping.

Ergen has been involved in the satellite business for decades. Today, he controls and runs Dish Network, a satellite television provider that has seen the back of high customer growth. Dish and DirecTV are both locked out of the “triple play” business most cable and phone companies offer customers. Neither company can offer broadband or telephone service without partnering with another provider. As cord-cutting continues to take hold, customers willing to pay for increasingly expensive television packages are in decline. That likely explains Ergen’s interest in acquiring wireless spectrum — to build Dish into a broadband, television, and telephone service provider.

In May, Dish publicly bid $2.2 billion for certain spectrum assets from LightSquared. But for more than a year earlier, Ergen was quietly buying up LightSquared’s debt through holding companies and hedge funds.

Ergen created an opaque investment entity named “SP Special Opportunites, LLC” a/k/a “Sound Point” to buy LightSquared debt. Separately, Ergen asked Stephen Ketchum, a former investment banker with close ties to Ergen, to buy over $1 billion in LightSquared debt securities through Ketchum’s hedge fund. From April 2012 until May 2013, Sound Point allegedly spent $1,013,082,326.30 to purchase secured debt for Ergen’s personal benefit and without the knowledge of Dish or its board of directors. Secured debt held by creditors is paid first in a bankruptcy proceeding, and Ergen quietly because LightSquared’s largest single secured creditor.

That puts Charlie Ergen in a major ethical dilemma.

The more Dish offers to pay for LightSquared, the more money Ergen will be paid to cover the shares of LightSquared’s secure debt. Ergen has a controlling interest in Dish, which means he can order Dish to overpay for LightSquared, personally pocketing the proceeds.

Bloomberg’s Matt Levine explains the shady deal:

“An executive going around and buying up an asset for cheap, then convincing his company to buy all of that asset for a higher price – doesn’t come up a lot because it’s so obviously shady,” Levine wrote. “If you’re supposed to be devoting your time and energy to finding opportunities for your company, it looks pretty bad to steal those opportunities for yourself.”

Falcone was outraged when he learned of Ergen’s stealthy acquisitions.

Ergen

Ergen

In July, Harbinger accused Ergen of “fraudulently” becoming a creditor to block efforts by LightSquared to reorganize and emerge intact from bankruptcy. Instead, Harbinger accused Ergen of seeking to acquire the company’s assets “on the cheap.” Harbinger also points to provisions in a LightSquared debt agreement that forbids certain competitors from buying the company’s debt.

Also upset are several major Dish Network shareholders who are not pleased Ergen’s private deal could make him a lot of money while costing shareholders plenty should Dish overpay for LightSquard’s assets or worse, end up with everything but the spectrum Dish covets.

At least five lawsuits have been filed since August, accusing Ergen and other board members of casting their fiduciary duties to the wind and wasting money along the way. They are also upset Ergen and his connections purchased $1 billion in LightSquared debt at a substantial discount and will likely be repaid the full face value of those debts with Dish Network’s money. That means nearly $300 million in personal profits for Ergen.

The latest shareholder lawsuit was filed by the Louisiana Municipal Police Employees’ Retirement System. It along with the suit filed by the City of Daytona Beach Police Officers’ and Firefighters’ Retirement System claim Ergen’s near-total control of Dish’s board of directors makes it impossible for the board to meet its obligation of representing shareholder interests first.

“Ergen’s control over the company and the board is highlighted by the numerous transactions he has caused Dish to enter into with members of his family,” the lawsuit states.

Ergen and Dish’s efforts to insulate themselves from charges of conflict of interest didn’t fly with many investors.

One lawsuit noted Tom Ortolf, one of the directors on the supposedly independent committee reviewing Dish’s bid, has a daughter that works at Dish; the other, George Brokaw, chose Mr. Ergen’s wife, Cantey Ergen—a Dish director named in the shareholder suit—to be the godmother of his son.

The discomfort level at Dish reached high enough to prompt one board member, Gary Howard, to suddenly resign in early September. Howard was also on the committee formed to vet the LightSquared deal because of the potential conflict of interest on Ergen’s part.

Before Falcone could claim the high road at Ergen’s expense, this week New York’s top financial regulator banned Falcone from managing Fidelity & Guaranty Life Insurance Company of New York for seven years. Harbinger Group bought Fidelity & Guaranty, the U.S. life and annuity unit of London-based Old Mutual Plc, for $350 million in 2011.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg LightSquared 9-5-13.flv

Bloomberg News discusses the high drama between LightSquared and Dish Network. (4 minutes)

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Time Warner Cable CEO Still Complaining About Cheap Customers Looking for Deals

Phillip Dampier June 5, 2013 Consumer News, HissyFitWatch, Time Warner Cable 5 Comments

cheapTime Warner Cable CEO Glenn Britt considers value conscious customers a nuisance, so much so the company has changed its promotions to make them less attractive to ‘big bang for the buck’-discount hunters.

Speaking at the Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Global Telecom & Media Conference in London, Britt said the company had to beef up its in-house customer retention specialists to try and keep frugal customers who signed up for aggressive triple-play promotions in the last two years that the company now wants to reset to a higher price.

“It’s easy to generate a lot more customers by being very aggressive on price,” Britt said. “It isn’t clear that those customers are profitable. They tend to be lower income — people who tend to rent as opposed to own their dwelling unit. They move a lot and sometimes they don’t pay very well. The real trick is to create the optimum profitability.”

“Going back to fourth quarter of 2011, we pushed too hard on volume and we had very aggressive offers in the marketplace,” Britt explained. “These typically stepped up in price after a year and we kept those offers in place through most of 2012. So we got a lot of customers – particularly voice customers. That seemed good at the time. What we found is as we try to step them up to higher prices, that they are not very sticky. They have worse/bad pay characteristics than our average customers. So that’s all been a problem. Quite frankly we did not prepare our retention centers for the volume of people who are in this. We’ve changed our offers so they are less rich and we’ve stood up and enhanced our retention centers.”

As a result of the changes, Time Warner Cable lost more voice customers than it gained for the first time. That does not bother Britt, who sees selling faster broadband to customers more profitable than discounting phone service to keep phone customer numbers up.

britt3

Britt: The Sale is Over

Chief operating officer Rob Marcus told investors this week the company was hiring more in-house customer service representatives in the retention department to keep customers from defecting after their promotional price expires. Time Warner used to outsource many of those last-ditch retention calls, but has now staffed at least 500 new customer service representatives in four retention centers around the country. At least 400 additional hires are expected by the end of the year.

“What that enables us to do is route a greater portion of calls from customers likely to disconnect to these specialists, as opposed to sending them to either our care queue or outsourced reps who we think are less effective at handling those kinds of calls,” Marcus said.

Britt said the biggest segment of customers threatening to disconnect are TV customers who can no longer afford the cable package due to increasing programming costs. Britt does not believe online video cord-cutting is a major threat.

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