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Trudeau Ends Endless Debate on Taxing Internet Content Providers: Canadians Pay Enough Already

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly blunders through the dicey issue of Canadian content on Netflix in a press tour called “disastrous” by critics.

The arrival of Netflix Canada and its tens of thousands of alternative on-demand viewing choices has had defenders of Canadian culture up in arms ever since the American interloper showed up.

A little background:

For Canada, the dominance of their neighbor to the south has always presented a challenge to a country that fears having its cultural independence steamrolled and its official two-language experience watered down by an avalanche of English-language content. Canadian broadcasters and cable networks are governed by regulations that require they reserve at least 50% of their program schedule for Canadian content (the percentage varies slightly for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation/Société Radio-Canada — Canada’s public broadcaster, and Canadian cable networks).

Because Canada is a much smaller media market than the United States, finding the money to produce enough high quality Canadian TV shows and movies has always been a challenge. Most recently, Canada’s telecom regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) mandated that broadcasters spend 30% of their revenues on original Canadian content. As a result, many commercial networks and stations spend that money on cheap reality shows or news content to satisfy Canadian content requirements. While that fulfills the government mandate, it doesn’t always fulfill the demands of many Canadian viewers that prefer to watch something else.

Netflix’s streaming service in Canada competes directly with those broadcasters, as well as Canadian cable and phone company on-demand services, but is not subject to the same content laws because the 25-year old law governing broadcasting was written before there was the prospect of online streaming alternatives. In less than a decade Netflix has grown its original business renting DVD’s through the mail into a multi-billion dollar international streaming business that has deeper content acquisition pockets than any Canadian media entity.

The Liberal Party of Canada is trying to manage Canadian content rules now 25 years old, before the era of streaming video.

There is also a technology shift in play here. What exactly constitutes “media” is open to debate. Traditional broadcast media now competes with newly emerging, and largely unregulated digital social media (a-la Facebook, Twitter, etc.) and online over-the-top services (Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, etc.) Broadcasters are regulated in the public interest and have lived under that framework for decades. Upstart new media relies on an internet platform that has never been significantly regulated at all.

Efforts by the government and Canada’s creative community to get Netflix Canada to follow the Canadian content model has largely failed, and it seems unlikely Netflix will ever see itself tied down by content or language quotas. It flies in the face of Netflix’s marketing — giving customers unlimited access to the content they want to see, not what a bureaucrat in Montreal or Ottawa wants customers to see.

Netflix has hired some high-priced lobbyists to make sure their interests are represented before federal and provincial officials, and it has been a constant battle over the last two years as the service confronts content regulators, those upset about the service’s lack of French Canadian titles, and the desire by some of Canada’s political parties and provinces, Quebec notably, to subject Netflix to federal and provincial sales and value-added taxes (GST/HST).

The federal government, led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has refused to impose these kinds of taxes on Netflix or other foreign-headquartered internet services, despite the fact many fellow members of the Liberal Party think it should. The Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage called for an internet tax last June, and content creator groups have lobbied the government hard to demand Netflix be required to substantially invest in homegrown Canadian productions envisioned, filmed, and produced by Canadians.

It has also the components you need to create a melodrama:

  • a deep-pocketed and arrogant American corporation that made an inelegant entry into Canada and alienated the CRTC by refusing to disclose information to the regulator;
  • a sense of an unfair playing field where Canadian companies face sales/use taxes while American companies like Netflix don’t;
  • the ongoing fear among Canada’s Francophone community that their political and language sovereignty is under threat;
  • the ongoing fear of Canadians that their cultural sovereignty will be washed away by an American cultural tsunami.

The Liberals’ Sacrificial Lamb: Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly’s Disaster Tour

Some Francophone tabloids in Quebec specialize is assaulting all-things-Liberal, especially Mélanie Joly.

Trudeau’s point person on the Netflix controversy in 2017 was Canadian Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, who was swept into the political maelstrom during a cross-country tour to promote the government’s new Creative Canada cultural policy. By all accounts, it was an unmitigated disaster for the government.

Joly’s performance in Quebec — her home province where she serves as MP for the Ahuntsic-Cartierville riding in Montreal, managed what few thought possible — uniting critics from the province’s governing Liberals with the sovereigntist Parti Québécois and the left-wing party Québec Solidaire.

Mathieu Bock-Côté, writing in the Journal de Montréal, claimed Joly was guilty of “dereliction of duty.”

After Joly bizarrely asserted on Radio-Canada’s popular talk show Tout le monde en parle (“Everyone’s Talking About It”) that Vidéotron, Quebec’s largest cable operator with over 1.6 million subscribers was not a cable company, center-right tabloids Le Journal de Montréal and Le Journal de Québec, both specializing in attacking all-things-Trudeau, had a field day. One columnist labeled Joly “Mélangée Joly” ( All-mixed-up Joly). Her propensity to stick close to her index card talking points and repeat them over and over, regardless of the question asked, bemused columnist Richard Martineau, who wrote Joly sounded “like a living answering machine having a nervous breakdown.”

In Quebec, the debate over tax fairness shared the stage with concerns about how much attention Netflix will pay producing French Canadian content.

In hopes of assuaging concerns, Joly announced Ottawa would increase investment in the $349 million Canada Media Fund to make up for shortfalls from declining contributions based on decreasing revenue from Canadian cable operators. She also promised $125 million to promote Canadian productions abroad. Heads that first nodded in agreement over the announcement quickly froze after Joly also announced Netflix would be exempt from federal sales tax in return for a five-year commitment to invest $100 million annually in Canadian content and $25 million specifically for “market development” of French-language content, whatever that means.

The lack of any specific commitment on French language programming went over like a lead balloon and ignited a firestorm of criticism over the perception Joly was going to rely entirely on Netflix Canada to protect and manage francophone programming on its own terms.

“We are alarmed as Francophones because there is no guarantee that a part of this [$100 million annually] is going to francophone content,” said Gabriel Pelletier, head of the province’s producers’ union, the Association des réalisateurs et réalisatrices du Québec. “Cultural questions are definitely more sensitive and obvious in Quebec, but my colleagues in the rest of Canada have similar priorities. We need to be able to see ourselves and our own stories in cultural content. Our own distributors play by very strict rules, but here we are giving Netflix a red carpet and an open market. It could lead to the disintegration of our entire regulatory system, because Rogers and Bell might say ‘Why do we have to pay when Netflix doesn’t have to?”

Joly also made little headway defending the Liberal government’s sales tax policy exempting Netflix. Appearing on Cogeco-owned CHMP-FM in Montreal, Joly was questioned by center-right talk show host Paul Arcand over her claim the decision not to tax Netflix was based on the Liberals’ promise not to raise taxes.

“Tou.tv (Radio-Canada’s streaming film service] is taxed. Vidéotron’s Illico is taxed; we are not talking about adding a new tax, we’re talking about taxing a product thacrticismt already exists,” Arcand said. “Are you ready to remove the taxes for those two comparable [Canadian] companies?”

Joly did not specifically answer.

Cartoonists have been particularly vicious over the Netflix affair, portraying Joly as vapid or a camera-friendly tall, blond, 38-year old politician more style than substance. Some of her critics on the right — usually older middle-aged men, according to her defenders — ‘cross the line’ into sexism by repeatedly calling Joly “the majorette” — a reference to a baton twirling performer usually seen in marching bands during parades.

Despite the criticism, Joly rarely sat back and allowed those perceptions to go unchallenged.

A tradition among guests on Tout le monde en parle is to end their segment by reading aloud a card handed to them by a producer that succinctly summarizes their position. Viewers understand the words are written by the producer and not the guest, but Joly unilaterally decided to change her card. The original said, “It’s amazing that with all the digital media available, our politicians have stayed faithful to the cassette.” Joly replaced the word “cassette” with the word “innovation.”

Dany Turcotte, the show’s co-producer tasked with creating the cards, was not happy with Joly’s change.

“When someone changes the meaning of my cards, ça me met en t****,” using an expression that roughly translates to “that makes me f***ing angry.”

The NDP vs. the Liberals

After the embarrassing press tour ended, the issue went back on simmer mode until Feb. 5, when an opposition members of the NDP brought the issue forward once again during the House of Commons Question Time, where members can directly question the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Julian

“The government seems more than happy to let web giants continue to make huge profits without contributing to the Canadian economy,” said MP Peter Julian (NDP-New Westminster/Burnaby, B.C.). “While the rest of the world is trying to make these companies pay, the Liberals are doing the opposite. They are making deals with Netflix and other companies, and offering massive tax breaks. Canadians pay their taxes and expect companies to do the same. When will the Liberals start making web giants pay their fair share?”

“Mr. Speaker, the NDP is proposing to raise taxes on the middle class, which is something we promised we would not do and have not done,” responded Prime Minister Trudeau. “We explicitly promised in the 2015 election campaign that we would not be raising taxes on Netflix. People may remember Stephen Harper’s attack ads on that. They were false. We actually moved forward in demonstrating that we were not going to raise taxes on consumers, who pay enough for their internet at home.”

“Mr. Speaker, is it fair that Netflix, Facebook, and other web giants have to pay neither sales nor income tax whereas Canadian companies in the same sector do?” followed up MP Guy Caron (NDP-Rimouski-Neigette/Témiscouata/Les Basques, Que.) “Around the world, other countries are trying to make sure that these web giants pay their fair share. Australia and the European Union are excellent examples. After all, it is those giants that are going to monopolize the advertising market and suck the lifeblood out of our print media. They are also responsible for the challenges facing print media. Instead of reining in the web giants and ensuring a level playing field for everyone, the Liberals want to make this preferential treatment official. When will the Liberals show some backbone and level the playing field?”

Trudeau

“Mr. Speaker, we are not going to raise taxes on Canadians. That is what the NDP is asking us to do,” responded Trudeau. “We recognize that the media environment and television viewing and production are changing rapidly. That is why we reached out and got Netflix to make historic investments in our content creators here in Quebec and Canada, to help them succeed in this changing universe. We have a great deal of confidence in our creators; the approach we have chose is a testament to that.”

In a later exchange, the issue of Netflix and taxation was debated by MP Pierre-Luc Dusseault (NDP-Sherbrooke, Que.) and Sean Casey, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage:

Dusseault: My question primarily has to do with the Netflix agreement. Everyone is starting to understand how this agreement gives Netflix a tax advantage over its competitors. I want to follow up on this issue and on the government’s completely twisted logic. Last week, the government kept spouting the same empty rhetoric to explain why it decided to give Netflix a tax holiday. This tax holiday was granted in exchange for an investment, but there is no guarantee of this investment. Netflix is getting a tax holiday in exchange for the infamous agreement presented by the Minister of Canadian Heritage. This is what I would like to talk about today.

The government gave a foreign company a tax break for doing business in Canada without having to abide by same tax rules as its competitors. This company is doing business with Canadian consumers. When it sells a product to consumers in Canada, it does not have to charge GST or federal sales tax because the government is allowing this situation to continue. The government is allowing a company to sell a product, in this case a subscription to Netflix, without charging consumers any GST.

According to the government and its twisted logic, this is not a problem because that is just how things work. That is the government’s reason for not forcing Netflix to charge GST. It is possible to make Netflix charge sales tax because several other countries have already done so. Although Netflix is an American company that operates all over the world, it pays sales tax in some countries. Most countries actually have taxes associated with the sale of goods and services.

Dusseault

Canada can make Netflix charge sales tax. It is possible. The argument that the government cannot do this does not hold water. In fact, the government is not even using that argument. In the beginning, the Minister of Canadian Heritage said that it was too complicated and that it would require an international agreement to make Netflix charge sales tax. That is completely untrue.

Now the government’s argument is that it does not want to impose a new tax on consumers. Based on the government’s twisted logic, the GST is a new tax. This is like telling huge multinationals like Target or Walmart that when they come to Canada to sell their goods and services, they will not have to charge their customers GST at the checkout because that would be a new tax. This is like telling a new company that sets up shop in Canada that we cannot ask it to charge GST because that would be a new tax, and Canadians cannot afford any new taxes. That is the logic the Liberals are using today. In other words, they are saying that a foreign company or multinational that has a physical presence in Canada does not have to charge GST, although the store next door does.

Can my colleague explain how the government came up with this logic? How is the GST a new tax for businesses?

Casey: Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank my honorable colleague from Sherbrooke for giving us a chance to talk about the many benefits of the agreement with Netflix.This government strongly believes that the establishment of a new Canadian business in the film and television production sector by Netflix is wonderful news for Canadian creators and producers, and ultimately for our cultural industries as a whole.

The approval of this significant investment in Canada under the Investment Canada Act is yet another indication of our government’s strong commitment to growing Canada’s creative industries, with new investments that create more opportunities for creators and producers across the country. In fact, this major investment of a minimum of $500 million over the next five years on original productions in Canada will provide them with even greater access to financing, business partners, and ultimately new ways to connect with audiences across the globe.

Casey

Such an unprecedented investment by a digital platform in Canada, a first of its kind for Netflix outside of the United States, is yet another confirmation to the world that Canada is a great place to invest, attesting to the creative talent of this country and the strong track record of our cultural industries in creating films and television productions that really stand out.

It is important to make a distinction between the cultural activities of Netflix Canada, which has committed to investing a minimum of $500 million Canadian in the production of Canadian-made films and television series, with the activities of its U.S.-based video streaming service. These are in fact two separate kinds of cultural activities.

It is also important to reiterate that all businesses, including those involved in television and film production that set up and operate in Canada, must abide by the Canadian tax system, which includes GST. Given that Netflix Canada plans to operate a production company in Canada, it will have to comply with all GST-related rules, which could apply to its production activities in Canada.

Lastly I would like to point out that Netflix announced last week that it has acquired the award-winning Canadian film, Les Affamés, written and directed by Robin Aubert, one of the most unique voices in Quebec’s cinema, to be made available on the international market as early as this coming March. This represents the first of many Canadian films and television series to be acquired or produced by Netflix Canada as a result of its significant investment announced last fall.

Dusseault: Mr. Speaker, I know the parliamentary secretary is trying to draw a distinction between Netflix Canada and Netflix USA. I know the two are different. However, he avoided answering my question about Netflix USA subscriptions that are not subject to GST. That was probably intentional, so I would like him to comment on this specific issue. Netflix USA sells a product to Canadian consumers and, unlike its competitors, does not have to collect GST.

Can my colleague, the parliamentary secretary, explain to me why a foreign company is exempt from the tax rules that apply to Canadian businesses? Why are Canadian consumers not paying tax on Netflix subscriptions?

Casey: Mr. Speaker, Netflix Canada created a new film and television production company. This is great news for Canadian creators and producers. Once again, over the next five years, Netflix will invest a minimum of $500 million Canadian in original productions produced in Canada in English and in French for distribution on Netflix’s global platform.

Caron

Let us not forget that Netflix already has a strong track record of investing in Canadian producers and content, with recent examples including Anne and Alias Grace with the CBC, Travelers with Showcase, and Frontier with Discovery.

We believe that this significant investment in Canada demonstrates that Netflix is committed to continuing to be a meaningful partner in supporting Canadian creators, producers, and the Canadian creative expression.

A day later, Caron was ready to follow up with the Prime Minister.

“Mr. Speaker, when we ask him why web giants like Netflix and Facebook do not have to charge sales tax even though their Canadian competitors do, the Prime Minister says that he promised not to raise taxes for the middle class. We are talking about a tax that already exists, sales tax. We want fairness in the industry. It is unacceptable that the Prime Minister does not have the courage to ask web giants to pay their fair share. When will the Prime Minister understand that and insist on fair treatment for the entire industry?”

“Mr. Speaker, once again, as the NDP has said, web giants must pay their fair share,” responded Trudeau. “It is not web giants that the NDP wants to charge, it is taxpayers. The New Democrats want to make taxpayers pay more taxes. They want Canadians, Quebec and Canadian taxpayers, to pay more taxes for their online services. We, on this side of the House, promised not to raise taxes for taxpayers, and we are going to stand by that promise. If the New Democrats want to raise taxes for Canadians, they should say so instead of hiding behind talk of big corporations.”

“Mr. Speaker, he does not get it,” retorted Caron. “We are not talking about a new tax; we are talking about a tax that already exists and must be collected by Canadian competitors. He needs to follow the example of France, Australia, and many American states that have decided to make these web giants pay. Even here at home, the whole province of Quebec wants to do the same. Imposing on Bombardier a sales tax that is not required of Boeing would be unthinkable, so why do it in the online sector? Not only is the Prime Minister trying to justify these tax breaks, but he is going even further by making deals with those companies. When will the Liberals stop getting into bed with these web giants?”

“Mr. Speaker, once again, the New Democrats are misleading Canadians,” replied Trudeau. “They are talking about making web giants pay their fair share. It is not the web giants they want to pay more in taxes; it is taxpayers. We made a commitment to taxpayers that they would not have to pay more for their online services. We on this side of the House plan to keep that promise.”

Trudeau Settles the Matter… for Some

The issue of Netflix, taxation, and to some extent Canadian content has apparently resonated with the NDP, as their members return to press the issue with the Liberals again and again. But Trudeau’s steadfast response has made it clear his government intends to bury the issue once and for all.

In a sense, both sides are right. Canadian content regulations and protections for Canadian culture and the francophone community in Canada are at risk of being diluted by an onslaught of cord-cutting and new online streaming services that do not always recognize the sensitivity of these issues for many Canadians. As viewers gain new choices, especially those not subject to regulatory oversight, the dominance of American streaming services will be even more apparent than the dominance of Hollywood and American network television. Netflix is not in the business to cater to Canadian content quotas and likely never will unless the government mandates it.

French language content on Netflix will largely come from European producers and networks in France and to a lesser degree Belgium and Switzerland.

But Netflix’s enormous budget for content development does open the door to opportunities for Canadian productions with budgets Canadian networks like CBC, CTV, Global, TVA, and Radio-Canada can only dream about. Quality should trump quotas, and may the best productions win.

Canadian telecom companies have a pervasive presence in all forms of Canadian entertainment. Bell (Canada) owns Bell Media, which in turn owns CTV – Canada’s largest privately owned commercial network. City, which has network affiliates in Canada’s largest cities, is owned by Rogers, Canada’s largest cable operator (Rogers also owns Omni Television, a multicultural network). Global is owned by Corus Entertainment, which in turn is controlled substantially by Shaw Communications, western Canada’s largest cable operator. Canadian cable and telco-TV providers run their own streaming services which are subject to sales taxes, while foreign streaming companies like Netflix are not. There is a case to be made for a lack of a level-playing field.

But Prime Minister Trudeau is also correct stating that any new taxes imposed on Netflix Canada or other new entrants would immediately be passed on to subscribers and raise the price of internet services. The Liberals’ platform during the last election insisted that the party wanted universal access to affordable broadband service for all Canadians and no taxes on Netflix. For many consumers, the price of content and the price of access are essentially the same thing.

Netflix has thrown a “token” $500 million at the problem in hopes of placating its Canadian critics. It may be enough to satisfy Vancouver and Toronto, where many series and movies are filmed, and it certainly has “resolved” the matter for the Liberal government of Mr. Trudeau, but it seems unlikely to soothe the concerns of Quebec and its vocal and proud francophone community. Quebec could move forward and impose a provincial sales tax on Netflix at any time, and will likely continue to pose a challenge to Netflix Canada until the company seems more sensitive to the concerns raised in many quarters in Montreal, Quebec City, and beyond. The creative community of French Canada can deliver some excellent productions, so long as Anglophiles are willing to read subtitles. Netflix may have to spend more money to make certain those types of shows turn up on the service in the not too distant future.

Internet’s Biggest Frauds: Traffic Tsunamis and Usage-Based Pricing

Providers’ tall tales.

Year after year, equipment manufacturers and internet service providers trot out predictions of a storm surge of internet traffic threatening to overwhelm the internet as we know it. But growing evidence suggests such scare stories are more about lining the pockets of those predicting traffic tsunamis and the providers that use them to justify raising your internet bill.

This month, Cisco — one of the country’s largest internet equipment suppliers, released its latest predictions of astounding internet traffic growth. The company is so confident its annual predictions of traffic deluges are real it branded a term it likes to use to describe it: The Zettabyte Era. (A zettabyte, for those who don’t know, is one sextillion bytes, or perhaps more comfortably expressed as one trillion gigabytes.)

Cisco’s business thrives on scaring network engineers with predictions that customers will overwhelm their broadband networks unless they upgrade their equipment now, as in ‘right now!‘ In turn, the broadband industry’s bean counters find predictions of traffic explosions useful to justify revenue enhancers like usage caps, usage-based billing, and constant rate increases.

“As we make these and other investments, we periodically need to adjust prices due to increases [in] business costs,” wrote Comcast executive Sharon Powell in a letter defending a broad rate increase imposed on customers in Philadelphia late last year.

In 2015, as that cable company was expanding its usage caps to more markets, spokesman Charlie Douglas tried to justify the usage caps claiming, “When you have 10 percent of the customers consuming 50 percent of the network bandwidth, it’s only fair that those consumers should pay more.”

When Cisco released its 2017 predictions of internet traffic growth, once again it suggests a lot more data will need to be accommodated across America’s broadband and wireless networks. But broadband expert Dave Burstein has a good memory based on his long involvement in the industry and the data he saw from Cisco actually deflates internet traffic panic, and more importantly provider arguments for higher cost, usage-capped internet access.

“Peak Internet growth may have been a couple of years ago,” wrote Burstein. “For more than a decade, internet traffic went up ~40% every year. Cisco’s VNI, the most accurate numbers available, sees growth this year down to 27% on landlines and falling to 15-20% many places over the next few years. Mobile growth is staying higher — 40-50% worldwide. Fortunately, mobile technology is moving even faster. With today’s level of [provider investments], LTE networks can increase capacity 10x to 15x.”

According to Burstein, Cisco’s estimates for mobile traffic in the U.S. and Canada in 2020 is 4,525 petabytes and in 2021 is 5,883 petabytes. That’s a 30% growth rate. Total consumer traffic in the U.S. and Canada Cisco sees as 48,224 petabytes and 56,470 petabytes in 2021. That’s a 17% growth rate, which is much lower on wired networks.

Burstein’s findings are in agreement with those of Professor Andrew Odlyzko, who has debunked “exaflood/data tsunami” scare stories for over a decade.

“[The] growth rate has been decreasing for almost two decades,” Odlyzko wrote in a 2016 paper published in IPSI BgD Transactions. “Even the growth rate in wireless data, which was extremely high in the last few years, shows clear signs of a decline. There is still rapid growth, but it is simply not at the rates observed earlier, or hoped for by many promoters of new technologies and business methods.”

Burstein

The growth slowdown, according to Odlyzko, actually began all the way back in 1997, providing the first warning the dot.com bubble of the time was preparing to burst. He argued the data models used by equipment manufacturers and the broadband industry to measure growth have been flawed for a long time.

When new internet trends became popular, assumptions were made about what impact they would have, but few models accurately predicted whether those trends would remain a major factor for internet traffic over the long-term.

Peer-to-peer file sharing, one of the first technologies Comcast attempted to use as a justification for its original 250GB usage cap, is now considered almost a footnote among the applications having a current profound impact on internet traffic. Video game play, also occasionally mentioned as a justification for usage caps or network management like speed throttling, was hardly ever a major factor for traffic slowdowns, and most games today exchange player actions using the smallest amount of traffic possible to ensure games are fast and responsive. In fact, the most impact video games have on the internet is the size of downloads required to acquire and update them.

Odlyzko also debunked alarmist predictions of traffic overloads coming from the two newest and largest traffic contributors of the period 2001-2010 — cloud backups and online video.

Odlyzko

“Actual traffic trends falsified this conjecture, as the first decade of the 21st century witnessed a substantial [traffic growth rate] slowdown,” said Odlyzko. “The frequent predictions about ‘exafloods’ overwhelming the networks that were frequent a decade ago have simply not come to pass. At the 20 to 30% per year growth rates that are observed today in industrialized countries, technology is advancing faster than demand, so there is no need for increasing the volume of investments, or for the fine-grained traffic control schemes that are beloved by industry managers as well as researchers.”

That’s a hard pill to swallow for companies that manufacture equipment designed to “manage,” throttle, cap, and charge customers based on their overusage of the internet. It also gives fits to industry executives, lobbyists, and the well paid public policy researchers that produce on spec studies and reports attempting to justify such schemes. But the numbers don’t lie, even if the industry does.

Although a lot of growth measured these days comes from wireless networks, they are not immune to growth slowdowns either. The arrival of the smartphone was hailed by wireless companies and Wall Street as a rocket engine to propel wireless revenue sky high. Company presidents even based part of their business plans on revenue earned from monetizing data usage allegedly to pay for spectrum acquisitions and upgrades.

McAdam

Verizon’s CEO Lowell McAdam told investors as late as a year ago “unlimited data” could never work on Verizon Wireless again.

“With unlimited, it’s the physics that breaks it,” he said. “If you allow unlimited usage, you just run out of gas.”

The laws of physics must have changed this year when Verizon reintroduced unlimited data for its wireless customers.

John Wells, then vice president of public affairs for CTIA, the wireless industry’s top lobbying group, argued back in 2010 AT&T’s decision to establish pricing tiers was a legitimate way for carriers to manage the ‘explosive growth in data usage.’ Wells complained the FCC was taking too long to free up critically needed wireless spectrum, so they needed “other tools” to manage their networks.

“This is one of the measures that carriers are considering to make sure everyone has a fair and equal experience,” Walls said, forgetting to mention the wireless industry was cashing in on wireless data revenue, which increased from $8.5 billion annually in 2005 to $41.5 billion in 2009, and Wall Street was demanding more.

“There were again many cries about unsustainable trends, and demands for more spectrum (even though the most ambitious conceivable re-allocation of spectrum would have at most doubled the cellular bands, which would have accommodated only a year of the projected 100+% annual growth),” Odlyzko noted.

What the industry and Wall Street did not fully account for is that their economic models and pricing had the effect of modifying consumer behavior and changed internet traffic growth rates. Odlyzko cites the end of unlimited data plans and the introduction of “tight data caps” as an obvious factor in slowing down wireless traffic growth.

“But there were probably other significant ones,” Odlyzko wrote. “For example, mobile devices have to cope not just with limited transmission capacity, but also with small screens, battery
limits, and the like. This may have led to changes of behavior not just of users, but also of app developers. They likely have been working on services that can function well with modest
bandwidth.”

“U.S. wireless data traffic, which more than doubled from 2012 to 2013, increased just 26% from 2013 to 2014,” Odylzko reported. “This was a surprise to many observers, especially since there is still more than 10 times as much wireline Internet traffic than wireless Internet traffic.”

Many believe that was around the same time smartphones achieved peak penetration in the marketplace. Virtually everyone who wanted a smartphone had one by 2014, and as a result of fewer first-time users on their networks, data traffic growth slowed. At the same time, some Wall Street analysts also began to worry the companies were reaching peak revenue per user, meaning there was nothing significant to sell wireless customers that they didn’t already have. At that point, future revenue growth would come primarily from rate increases and poaching customers from competitors. Or, as some providers hoped, further monetizing data usage.

The Net Neutrality debate has kept most companies from “innovating” with internet traffic “fast lanes” and other monetization schemes out of fear of stoking political blowback. Wireless companies could make significant revenue trying to sell customers performance boosters like higher priority access on a cell tower or avoiding a speed throttle that compromised video quality. But until providers have a better idea whether the current administration’s efforts to neuter Net Neutrality are going to be successful, some have satisfied themselves with zero rating schemes and bundling that offer customers content without a data caps or usage billing or access to discounted packages of TV services like DirecTV Now.

Verizon is also betting its millions that “content is king” and the next generation of revenue enhancers will come from owning and distributing exclusive video content it can offer its customers.

Odlyzko believes providers are continuing the mistake of stubbornly insisting on acquiring or at least charging content providers for streaming content across their networks. That debate began more than a decade ago when then SBC/AT&T CEO Edward Whitacre Jr. insisted content companies like Netflix were not going to use AT&T’s “pipes for free.”

“Much of the current preoccupation of telecom service providers with content can be explained away as following historical precedents, succumbing to the glamour of ‘content,'” Odlyzko wrote. “But there is likely another pressing reason that applies today. With connection speeds growing, and the ability to charge according to the value of traffic being constrained either directly by laws and regulations, or the fear of such, the industry is in a desperate search for ways not to be a ‘dumb pipe.'”

AT&T and Verizon: The Doublemint Twins of Wireless

A number of Wall Street analysts also fear common carrier telecom companies are a revenue growth ‘dead-end,’ offering up a commodity service about as exciting as electricity. Customers given a choice between AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile need something to differentiate one network from the other. Verizon Wireless claims it has a best in class LTE network with solid rural coverage. AT&T offers bundling opportunities with its home broadband and DirecTV satellite service. Sprint is opting to be the low price leader, and T-Mobile keeps its customers with a network that outperforms expectations and pitches constant promotions and giveaways to customers that crave constant gratification and change.

The theory goes that acquiring video content will drive data usage revenue, further differentiate providers, and keep customers from switching to a competitor. But Odylzko predicts these acquisitions and offerings will ultimately fail to make much difference.

“Dumb pipes’ [are] precisely what society needs,” Odylzko claims and in his view it is the telecom industry alone that has the “non-trivial skills” required to provide ubiquitous reliable broadband. The industry also ignores the utility-like built-in advantage it has owning pre-existing wireline and wireless networks. The amortized costs of network infrastructure often built decades ago offers natural protection from marketplace disruptors that likely lack the fortitude to spend billions of dollars required to invade markets with newly constructed networks of their own.

Odylzko is also critical of the industry’s ongoing failure of imagination.

Stop the Cap! calls that the industry’s “broadband scarcity” business model. It is predicated on the idea that broadband is a limited resource that must be carefully managed and, in some cases, metered. Companies like Cox and Comcast now usage-cap their customers and deter them from exceeding their allowance with overlimit penalties. AT&T subjectively usage caps their customers as well, but strictly enforces caps only for its legacy DSL customers. Charter Communications sells Spectrum customers on the idea of a one-size fits all, faster broadband option, but then strongly repels those looking to upgrade to even faster speeds with an indefensible $200 upgrade fee.

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

“The fixation with video means the telecom industry is concentrating too much on limiting user traffic,” Odlyzko writes. “In many ways, the danger for the industry, especially in the wireline arena, is from too little traffic, not too much. The many debates as to whether users really need 100Mbps connections, much less 1Gbps ones, reveal lack of appreciation that burst capability is the main function of modern telecom, serving human impatience. Although pre-recorded video dominates in the volume of traffic, the future of the Net is likely to be bursts of traffic coming from cascades of interactions between computers reacting to human demands.”

Burstein agrees.

“The problem for most large carriers is that they can’t sell the capacity they have, not that they can’t keep up,” he writes. “The current surge in 5G millimeter wave [talk] is not because the technology will be required to meet demand. Rather, it is inspired by costs coming down so fast the 5G networks will be a cheaper way to deliver the bits. In addition, Verizon sees a large opportunity to replace cable and other landlines.”

On the subject of cost and broadband economics, Burstein sees almost nothing to justify broadband rate hikes or traffic management measures like usage caps or speed throttling.

“Bandwidth cost per month per subscriber will continue flat to down,” Burstein notes. “For large carriers, that’s been about $1/month [per customer] since ~2003. Moore’s Law has been reducing equipment costs at a similar rate.”

“Cisco notes people are watching more TV over the net in evening prime time, so demand in those hours is going up somewhat faster than the daily average,” he adds. “This could be costly – networks have to be sized for highest demand – but is somewhat offset by the growth of content delivery networks (CDN), like Akamai and Netflix. (Google, YouTube, and increasingly Microsoft and Facebook have built their own.) CDNs eliminate the carrier cost of transit and backhaul. They deliver the bits to the appropriate segment of the carrier network, reducing network costs.”

Both experts agree there is no evidence of any internet traffic jams and routine upgrades as a normal course of doing business remain appropriate, and do not justify some of the price and policy changes wired and wireless providers are seeking.

But Wall Street doesn’t agree and analysts like New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin believe broadband prices should rise because with a lack of competition, nothing stops cable companies from collecting more money from subscribers. He isn’t concerned with network traffic growth, just revenue growth.

“As the primary source of value to households shifts increasingly from pay-TV to broadband, we would expect the cable companies to reflect more of the annual rate increases they push through on their bundles to be reflected in broadband than in the past,” Chaplin wrote investors. Comcast apparently was listening, because Chaplin noticed it priced standalone broadband at a premium $85 for its flagship product, which is $20 more than Comcast’s non-promotional rate for customers choosing a TV-internet bundle.

“Our analysis suggests that broadband as a product is underpriced,” Chaplin wrote. “Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing. The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

VCRs Officially Dead; Last Manufacturer of VHS Recorders Calls It Quits

Phillip Dampier July 21, 2016 Consumer News, History 2 Comments
How many of these do you still have in your basement or attic?

How many of these do you still have in your basement or attic? And more importantly, Be Kind, Rewind! (Image: Wikipedia)

The days of the Video Cassette Recorder (VCR) are coming to a quiet end as the last known manufacturer of the once-ubiquitous device announced it will stop making new machines at the end of July.

The VCR had its place in about 90 percent of U.S. homes just ten years ago. Although introduced to the consumer market in the late 1960s, the VCR remained a toy of the wealthy through much of the 1970s. It would take 10 years after that — the 1980s — for VCRs to become easily affordable and in enough homes to inspire a multi-billion dollar video rental industry with household names like Blockbuster. CNN even considered the VCR one of the most important cultural icons in its series The Eighties.

Like most new technology, the arrival of the VCR threatened everything, according to enterainment industry executives. Years of litigation dragged out issues like the right for consumers to make recordings of over-the-air stations to capture their favorite shows. Ad-skipping, courtesy of the fast-forward button, would “ruin” free television. Viewers might even build video libraries of shows and share them with friends and neighbors! At one time, some major companies in Hollywood even favored the imposition of a tax on blank videocassettes that would cover their losses from home recording. Copyright questions were finally settled in 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled home taping on a not-for-profit basis was perfectly legal. Hollywood survived despite this.

vcr_toshibaConsumers had a choice between two incompatible standards – the Sony Betamax, which promised superior video quality or JVC’s VHS format, a standard that allowed for longer recordings and was supported by just about every electronics manufacturer other than Sony. Some consumers owned both, but most settled for one or the other, and the VHS tape had a decisive advantage – extended recording time and near universal accessibility. It would eventually dominate in sales. More than 30 years later, recordings made on Betamax and VHS machines are still viewable, and turn up on video websites, often showcasing television as it used to look like in the 1970s and 1980s.

The VCR became so popular, it was a significant part of our lives. Pornography on videotape became a major issue during the Reagan Administration. But an even more pervasive problem was the flashing 12:00 time on your grandparent’s unconfigured VCR and the piece of black electrical tape used to conceal it. Videocassette clubs became as common as the record clubs that were around decades earlier. Parents used the VCR as an electronic babysitter to entertain children. Movie rental night was also the best way to watch your second, third, or fourth choice movie, as popular titles were cleared off shelves early in the evening. Rental fees, late fees, and “be kind, rewind” fees were also issues. But the worst nightmare of all was the horror of discovering a hopelessly unwound and tangled videocassette inside the machine, or worse, your child’s lunch.

What the VCR was invented for.

What the VCR was invented for: time-shifting

First generation VCRs were replaced with Hi-Fi and even SuperVHS models, which improved recording quality. Consumers bought second and third units for their bedrooms. Blank videocassettes were everywhere, often available hanging on a rack next to the checkout line.

The VCR was technology America took for granted… until the arrival of DVDs in 1995, just a decade after the VCR really got popular. There was simply no comparison. The DVD blew away videocassette video quality and offered easy accessibility, compact storage, and a longer lifespan. Just five years after the DVD showed up, it outsold all videotape formats combined. The pay television industry completed the hatchet job on the VCR with the introduction of the Digital Video Recorder (DVR) (Personal Video Recorder, or PVR, in Canada). The DVR was designed around the fact most consumers used VCRs to time-shift television programming, not build a personal library of recordings. With a DVR, a customer could quickly record their favorite shows and store them digitally, erasing unwanted shows with the push of a button.

The DVR still shows years of life, but the DVD’s days are likely numbered as cloud storage and on-demand video streaming make the need to collect and organize a library of shows and movies obsolete. Why buy it if you can stream it?

Manufacturers and retailers have noticed the shifting trends and the VCRs that were originally for sale in the 1980s were largely replaced by DVD players in the 1990s. Today, even DVD players are slowly being replaced in favor of devices like Roku or portable tablets.

Until this month, at least one manufacturer – Funai of Japan – still had a small niche market keeping VCRs in homes where owners spent decades amassing vast video libraries of movies and TV shows. Unfortunately, Chinese manufacturers of the parts needed to build a VCR have increasingly lost interest. So has Funai.

“We are the last manufacturer” of VCRs “in all of the world” — 750,000 units were sold worldwide in 2015, down from millions decades earlier, said Funai, which sold them under brand names like Sanyo, among others. This last holdout made VHS machines. Sony threw in the towel on making Betamax VCRs back in 2002. It stopped manufacturing blank tapes this year.

The infamous 8-track tape, just one of many orphaned recording media formats.

The infamous 8-track tape, just one of many orphaned recording media formats.

At some point in the next 10-20 years, the videocassette could represent one of the largest orphaned recording formats around. As little as 20 years from now, as your kids and grandchildren unearth strange plastic boxes from the attic or basement, they will wonder what they are and how to play them. Preservationists are concerned about the inevitable – discovering playable videocassettes have outlived the players required to watch them.

It isn’t the first time. Wire recordings still turn up in some attics. To the uninformed, they are nothing more than a spool of ordinary wire, except someone recorded sound on them sometime in the first half of the 20th Century. Even more common, open reel or reel-to-reel tapes wound on large plastic spools. This was the audiophile’s choice during much of the vinyl era, where the alternative was the obnoxiously awful 8-track tape or the hissy audio cassette.

If a radio broadcaster lived in your home, you might still find a few Fidelipac cartridges that slightly resemble 8-track tapes. These were commonly used to store continuous loop/always ready to go commercials and jingles. RCA developed its own version of the “Stereo Tape” in 1958 that came and went faster than the DuMont television network. In 1962, Muntz tried a Stereo Pak 4-track tape that went over like a yellow jacket swarm at a summer picnic. In 1966, the two track PlayTape format showed up and the only place you were likely to ever encounter it was inside certain Volkswagen automobiles. In 1977, someone had the brilliant idea of taking reel-to-reel size tape and loading it into a giant cassette-like shell. The Elcaset was born with a gigantic price tag. Unfortunately for the inventors, most consumers thought regular cassettes sounded good enough.

From the 1970s on, videotape was where it was at, and early formats were likely wound on spools or inserted into cartridges with strange-sounding names like U-matic. TV station personnel knew about these formats, but most consumers didn’t.

Making audio sound better in the 1980s brought three more attempts to recreate the portable cassette-like experience in a digital format. In 1988, Digital Audio Tape (DAT and R-DAT) arrived. It promised CD audio quality recordings. The record industry promised to destroy it at all costs because it could make perfect digital copies, great for bootlegging and pirating. It never emerged from niche status. The same was true for Sony’s bizarre MiniDisk, introduced in 1991. A sort of recordable CD-like disk placed inside a computer disk-style cartridge, it won some market share in Japan, but was never more than a curiosity in North America. If record companies didn’t release albums on these formats, they tended to tie quickly. Helping it along to the grave was copy protection technology, which irritated some users. In the end, the MiniDisk was deemed irrelevant after MP3 players arrived.

Philips of the Netherlands and Sony of Japan made one last effort before the MP3 rage with their 1992 introduction of the Digital Compact Cassette. Its main selling point was that players were backwards compatible and could also play ordinary cassettes (the things most consumers were starting to shove into drawers and shoe boxes the moment digital audio formats like MP3 took off). Too little, too late, and although Philips had a small loyal following for their players in Holland, you now have a better chance of finding blank digital cassettes stuffed into the back of drawers than you will ever have encountering a player to play them on.

Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dampier

Dampier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cincinnati Bell Plans to Shutdown Telegraph Grade Service, On Offer Since the 1800s

telegraph key

Telegraph key

If you thought your Internet service was slow, consider being a customer of Cincinnati Bell’s 75 baud Telegraph Grade service, on offer to subscribers since the 1800s for low-speed stock quotes, telegrams, and office-to-home communications. But don’t consider it too long, because the service is about to be discontinued.

The first telegram in the United States was sent on Jan. 11, 1838 using the newly developed “Morse Code” system introduced by Samuel Morse. The message was sent unceremoniously across two miles of wire strung across the sprawling Speedwell Ironworks outside of Morristown, N.J. But the experiment didn’t attract much attention until it was repeated in 1844 in Washington, D.C., where members of Congress looked on as the message, “What hath God wrought” successfully traveled from Washington to Baltimore, Md. A decade later, telegraph lines were strung to every major city on the east coast. By 1861, telegraph cables stretched across the territories west of the Mississippi and reached the West Coast, putting the Pony Express out of business.

It would be a decade after that before The City and Suburban Telegraph Company, later Cincinnati Bell Telephone, was officially incorporated on July 5, 1873, becoming the first company in the city to offer direct communication between the city’s homes and businesses. Only the wealthiest families could afford a private telegraph line, which cost $300 a year provided you lived no more than a mile from the company’s office. After four years, the company only managed to attract 50 paying customers, mostly business tycoons who relied on the telegraph to stay in contact with the office while at home. Other businesses used telegraphs to connect their different offices. Most employed young men to serve as telegraph operators, translating short written messages into a series of dots and dashes and back again.

Telegraph stamps, used to prove payment for sending and receiving messages.

Telegraph stamps, used to prove pre-payment for telegraph messages.

Business was better further east. The story of two men that would change the course of the telegraph and launch a company that remains a household name to this day started in 1838 when banker and real estate entrepreneur Hiram Sibley moved to Rochester, N.Y. He saw plenty of opportunities in upstate New York and quickly settled in, later becoming elected Monroe County Sheriff. That position soon led to his introduction to Judge Samuel L. Selden, who had the patent rights to the House Telegraph system. Seeing an opportunity, the two embarked on their own telegraph business — the New York State Printing Telegraph Company. It did not take long for them to realize competing against the larger New York, Albany, and Buffalo Telegraph Co., was a financial disaster. The two decided it would be smarter to consolidate existing providers instead of building new networks to compete. The first craze of telecommunications company consolidation was underway. With the assistance of deep pocketed investors in Rochester, Sibley and Selden founded the New York and Mississippi Valley Printing Telegraph Company. The new entity would string some of its own telegraph lines westwards, but more importantly it would focus on acquiring its rivals, especially in areas where fierce competition kept profits low and expectations of monopoly wealth even lower.

sibley

Sibley

By 1854, Sibley and Selden were confronted with competitors using two different messaging systems among 13 different companies. Sibley’s solution? Buy them out and unify them with the Morse system, available thanks to a separate acquisition of the Erie & Michigan Telegraph Company. In 1856, the company that had its beginnings in Rochester was renamed the “Western Union Telegraph Company,” which referred to the union of the different telegraph systems of the “western states” of that era (today considered the midwest).

Between 1857 and 1861 merger mania hit almost all the telegraph companies, and by the end of this period, most formerly independent companies were owned by one of six conglomerates:

  • American Telegraph Company (covering the Atlantic and some Gulf states),
  • Western Union Telegraph Company (covering states North of the Ohio River and parts of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Minnesota),
  • New York Albany and Buffalo Electro-Magnetic Telegraph Company (covering New York State),
  • Atlantic and Ohio Telegraph Company (covering Pennsylvania),
  • Illinois & Mississippi Telegraph Company (covering sections of Missouri, Iowa, and Illinois),
  • New Orleans & Ohio Telegraph Company (covering the southern Mississippi Valley and the Southwest).

Much like the cable industry today, these six giants maintained a mutually friendly alliance and never competed for territory. Any remaining independents quickly learned cooperation with these larger systems was essential. But once competition stalled in the telegraph business, so did interest in investing in challenging upgrades.

western unionBy 1860, as the United States continued its expansion westward and tension grew between the northern and southern states over issues like slavery and self-determination, the administration of President James Buchanan realized having a reliable national telegraph network was critical to the security of the country. Unfortunately for the president, his priorities ran headlong into private company intransigence. Persuading the for-profit companies to expand their networks to connect the west coast seemed impossible. None wanted to risk investor dollars on a telegraph line they believed would be too expensive and difficult to maintain.

That same year Congress passed, and President James Buchanan signed, the Pacific Telegraph Act, which authorized the Secretary of the Treasury to seek bids for constructing a transcontinental telegraph line, financed by the federal government. Two of the three bidders eventually dropped out, leaving Hiram Sibley’s Western Union the sole bidder.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 resulted in the construction on this telegraph line extending from Nebraska to Nevada.

The Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 resulted in the construction of this telegraph line extending from Nebraska to Carson City, Nev.

To insulate his other business interests from the project, Sibley organized the Pacific Telegraph Company to be responsible for construction of the new telegraph line to the west, starting in Omaha, Neb. Sibley also consolidated several small local companies into the California State Telegraph Company, which in turn launched the Overland Telegraph Company, managing construction of the cable eastward from Carson City, Nev., to Salt Lake City. The line was finally completed in October, 1861, seven months after the outbreak of the Civil War.

While newly elected president Abraham Lincoln was distracted settling into office starting March 4, 1861, Sibley was quietly preparing to consolidate control over the new taxpayer-funded cross-country cable. After the project was complete, Pacific Telegraph and California State Telegraph were quickly merged into Western Union, making Hiram Sibley the undisputed king of the telegraph industry. Any future ventures rising to challenge Western Union were instead eaten up by acquisition. By 1866, Western Union announced it was moving its company headquarters from Rochester to 145 Broadway in New York City.

Sibley retired from Western Union in 1869, and went into the seed and nursery business in Rochester and Chicago. He left the company during its most powerful era, having a virtual monopoly on the telegraph business at least a decade before the telephone would arrive on the scene. He retired the richest man in Rochester, and his home in the East Avenue Historical District still stands today. He gave generously to charity after retirement and helped incorporate a new college in the Southern Tier of New York called Cornell University.

The Hiram Sibley House, constructed in 1869, still stands today at 400 East Ave, Rochester, N.Y.

The Hiram Sibley House, constructed in 1868, still stands today at 400 East Avenue, Rochester, N.Y.

As the 1870s arrived, the Civil War was five years finished and huge changes were coming. Although telegraph service was already in place in many eastern seaboard cities, it took longer to arrive in smaller cities in the midwest and southern United States, and it was not too long after that before the telephone followed.

In Cincinnati, the telegraph service that began in 1873 was threatened by the arrival of the telephone in 1878 — just five years later. That fall, Cincinnati’s telegraph company signed an agreement with Bell Telephone Company of Boston, the first telephone company in the country. Bell held several patents essential for manufacturing telephones and granted the telegraph company an exclusive contract to sell phone service within a 25-mile radius of the city.

Bell Telephone arrived in the era of the Robber Barons, where trusts and monopolies were the product of unfettered capitalism. Bell’s business planners were more than happy following the telegraph industry to the glory days of consolidation and monopolization.

By 1879, the Bell Telephonic Exchange was well on its way, up and running on the corner of Fourth and Walnut streets in downtown Cincinnati — the 10th phone exchange in the nation and the first in Ohio. That year, Cincinnati’s first phone book was printed and the young men that operated the telegraph lines were not welcome manning the huge expanse of manual cord boards built inside the central office.

City and Suburban believed women served as better ambassadors for the newly emerging telephone company and the concept of “Hello Girls” was born. Only later would the Bell System insist on referring to these professional employees as “operators.” In Cincinnati, around two dozen women manned the cord boards in the exchange office during its first year. They were required to memorize the names of all callers and had to quickly learn how to complete calls — a process that involved connecting a patch cable between the caller and the person called on a giant board with a plug for every subscriber. They managed nearly 150,000 completed calls during the first year for over 1,000 customers.

1930s: View of half of the world's longest switchboard at the City and Suburban Telegraph Company (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone). The board held 88 positions and handled a record of 9,722 outgoing calls in 1937. Cincinnati, Ohio. 01/01/1935 Photo by Cincinnati Historical Society/Getty Images

Jan. 1, 1935: View of half of the world’s longest switchboard at the City and Suburban Telegraph Company (later Cincinnati Bell Telephone). The board held 88 positions and handled a record of 9,722 outgoing calls in 1937. (Photo by Cincinnati Historical Society/Getty Images)

The simplicity and directness of the telephone quickly proved a major challenge for the telegraph industry. Western Union saw opportunities investing in telegraph networks overseas to stay ahead of this trend. It also launched a stock ticker service and a money transfer service, allowing people to send money across the country in a matter of hours. Despite the innovation, by 1875, financier Jay Gould had finally managed to assemble a formidable competitor to Western Union — the Atlantic and Pacific Telegraph Company. An overabundance of Western Union stock on the market by 1881 made it possible for Gould to finally launch a successful takeover.

A Telex machine in use during the 1970s.

A Telex machine in use during the 1970s.

Telegraph lines remained in use well into the 20th century, used primarily for business communications, cables, and telegrams which were printed and delivered by messenger. Cincinnati Bell sold telegraph grade data lines for a variety of business applications, including slow speed data services. Even after the Morse code telegraph of the 1800s was long gone, other data services existed well before the arrival of the fax machine and the home computer. Telex messages were exchanged over a network of “teleprinters” which resembled an oversized manual typewriter. AT&T’s Teletypewriter eXchange (TWX) network was common in large businesses during the late 1960s into the 1970s. One of Cincinnati Bell’s other large customers for slow speed data lines was the military.

Cincinnati Bell customers signed up for telegraph grade service received an unconditioned telephone line capable of transmitting at 0-75 baud or 0-150 baud in half-duplex or duplex operation. That was half the data speed of computer modems common in the mid 1980s supporting up to 300 baud — which transmits text at a speed most can read and follow along in real-time.

Remarkably, Cincinnati Bell still needs the permission of regulators to drop the Civil War era telegraph service and in discontinuance requests sent to state and federal authorities, it reminded regulators the change will have no impact on the “public convenience and necessity” because there has been no demand for the service for a long time.

In fact, Cincinnati Bell has no customers to notify of the impending doom of telegraph grade service, because there have been no customers subscribed to it.

cincinnati bellCincinnati Bell’s request would have gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the long legacy of the telegraph era. Western Union dispatched its last telegram on Jan. 27, 2006, after 155 years of continuous service, and largely kept quiet about it, only notifying current customers: “Effective 2006-01-27, Western Union will discontinue all Telegram and Commercial Messaging services. We regret any inconvenience this may cause you, and we thank you for your loyal patronage. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact a customer service representative.”

Those nostalgic for telegrams might be interested to know another company has risen where Western Union left off. iTelegram promises to bring back the experience of a messenger at your front door, but it’s a costly trip down Memory Lane. A Priority Telegram costs $28.95 + $0.75 per word and is delivered usually within 24 hours, and includes proof of delivery. A “MailGram,” dispatched through the U.S. Mail is a slightly less expensive option, costing $18.95 and includes up to 100 words. It arrives in 3-5 days. Or you could send an e-mail for approximately nothing.

While Cincinnati Bell’s request recalls a distant past, Verizon and AT&T are also asking to discontinue services that customers were still using in the 1990s. Verizon wants to drop postpaid calling cards and personal 800 services that customers used to buy from MCI, now a Verizon subsidiary. For its part, AT&T wants to drop operator-assisted services due to almost no customer demand. In many areas, dialing “0” no longer even works to reach one of those Hello Girls… pardon me, I meant operators.

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  • Denis Cartledge: I live in a small (Australian) New England regional town, population ~3,500. The main north south New England Fibre Trunk runs up our main street, wh...
  • James Thompsen: You pay more you get mor.... hey wait an Effin minute!...
  • Joshi: Honestly, I'm glad Comcast did not win the bid. If they won, things would have gotten a lot worse since they bought out NBC Universal and Dreamworks s...
  • Stephen Collins: The modem increase is the most unconscionable of the bunch....
  • Wilhelm: My local phone company, Ontario and Trumansburg Telephone company is deploying fiber to the home in Phelps and Clifton Springs, NY this Summer. When t...
  • Paul A Houle: I for one are happy to see the sports not go to Disney or to any cable carrier. Disney already controls sports on ABC as well as ESPN, they don't ne...

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