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Wireless Spectrum: Highest Bidder Wins in U.S., Competition Wins in Europe… for Now

analysisIn the race to acquire spectrum and market share, AT&T and Verizon Wireless have already won most of the awards worth taking and have little to fear from smaller competitors. The U.S. government has seen to that.

The two wireless giants have benefited enormously from government spectrum auctions that award the most favorable wireless spectrum to the highest bidder, a policy that retards competition and guarantees deep-pocketed companies will continue to dominate in the coverage wars.

Winner-take-all spectrum auctions have already proven that AT&T and Verizon are best equipped to bid and win coveted 700MHz spectrum which provides the best indoor and fringe-area reception. This is why AT&T and Verizon customers often find “more bars in more places” than customers relying on Sprint or T-Mobile. Smaller carriers typically have to offer service over much-higher frequencies that don’t penetrate buildings very well. With a reduced level of service, these competitors are at an immediate competitive disadvantage. They also must spend more for a larger number of cell towers to provide uniform service.

Verizon's own presentation materials tout the benefits of controlling 700MHz spectrum which is less costly to deploy and offers more robust coverage.

Verizon’s own presentation materials tout the benefits of controlling 700MHz spectrum, which is less costly to deploy and offers more robust coverage.

Sprint and T-Mobile have two strikes against them at the outset — less favorable spectrum and much smaller coverage areas. Customers who want the best reception under all circumstances usually get it from the biggest two players. Those focused primarily on price are willing to sacrifice that reception for a lower bill.

The same story is developing in the wireless data marketplace. AT&T and Verizon Wireless have the strongest networks as Sprint and T-Mobile fight to catch up.

Where America Went Wrong: The Repeal of Spectrum Caps

Tom Wheeler: America's #1 Advocate for Repeal of Spectrum Caps is now the chairman of the FCC.

Tom Wheeler: America’s #1 advocate for repeal of Spectrum Caps is now the chairman of the FCC.

Originally, the United States prevented excessive market domination with a “Spectrum Cap,” — a maximum amount of wireless spectrum providers could hold in any local market. The rule was part of the sweeping changes in telecommunications law introduced in the mid-1990s. Wireless spectrum auctions replaced lotteries or strict frequency assignments based on merit. The U.S. government promoted the auction system as a win for the U.S. Treasury, which has been promised $60 billion in proceeds from the wireless industry (not the amount actually collected) since auctions began in 1994.

The cost to U.S. consumers from increasing cell phone bills in barely competitive markets is still adding up.

After the auction system was introduced, the largest carriers acquired some of the most favorable, lower-frequency spectrum, easily outbidding smaller rivals. Most of the smaller regional carriers that ultimately won coveted 700MHz spectrum emerged victorious only when AT&T and Verizon felt the smaller markets were not worth the investment. In larger markets, spectrum caps were a gatekeeper against acquiring excess spectrum and, more importantly, rampant industry consolidation.

Under the pre-2001 rules, wireless companies couldn’t own more than 45MHz of spectrum in a single urban area or more than 55MHz in a rural area. That was when Verizon and AT&T competed with carriers that no longer exist — old familiar names like Nextel, Cingular, VoiceStream, Alltel, Centennial Communications, Qwest, and many others considered safe from poaching because the most likely buyers would find themselves over their spectrum limits.

As the largest carriers realized the caps were an effective merger/buyout firewall, the wireless industry began a fierce lobbying campaign against them. Leading the charge was Tom Wheeler, then-president of the CTIA Wireless Association, the nation’s top cellular industry lobbying group. Today he is chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

“Today, America faces a severe spectrum shortage for wireless services,” Wheeler said in 2001. “The spectrum cap is a legacy of spectrum abundance, not shortages; the inefficiencies it perpetuates cannot be allowed to continue. While the U.S. government is looking for ways to catch up to the rest of the world on spectrum allocations, removal of the cap can at least increase the efficiency of existing spectrum.”

Copps

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps opposed retiring Spectrum Caps: “Let’s not kid ourselves: This is, for some, more about corporate mergers than it is about anything else.”

Wheeler was backed by an intensive lobbying effort funded by the largest wireless companies itching to merge and acquire.

By the end of 2001, the new Bush Administration’s FCC was ready to deal, gradually repealing the spectrum caps and fueling major wireless industry consolidation in the process. Providers everywhere could now own or control 55MHz of spectrum in any market, with the promise the caps would be repealed altogether by March 2003.

The result was already foreseen by former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps in November 2001, when he strongly dissented to the Republican majority gung ho for dissolving spectrum caps.

“Let’s not kid ourselves: This is, for some, more about corporate mergers than it is about anything else,” Copps wrote in his strong dissent. “Just look at what the analysts are talking about as the specter of spectrum cap renewal approaches – their almost exclusive focus is on evaluating the candidates for corporate takeovers and handicapping the winners and losers in the spectrum bazaar we are about to open.”

Just in case Copps might be making headway in his campaign to protect competition, Wheeler began complaining even louder about spectrum caps during the spring of 2003, just before their dissolution.

“The wireless industry fought long and hard to secure this spectrum for America’s wireless consumers,” said Wheeler. “Now we must tread carefully — in this era of rapid technological change, writing rules that are too restrictive would be irresponsible. In order to use this spectrum both efficiently and effectively, those who purchase this spectrum at auction must be allowed the freedom to grow and evolve with the demands of the market.”

Europe: Protecting Consumers from Giant Multinational Competition Consolidators (Some of the same ones AT&T reportedly wants to buy)

There is a reason Europeans are shocked by the costs of wireless service in the United States and Canada. North Americans pay higher prices for less service than our European counterparts. Most of the New World also has fewer choices in near-equivalent service providers.

Much of this difference can be attributed to European regulators maintaining focus on driving competition forward and disallowing rampant industry consolidation. But as Wall Street turns its attentions increasingly towards Europe to push for the next big wave of wireless mergers, the European system of “competition first” could be undermined if providers follow the North American model of high profits and reduced competition through consolidation.

Across much of Europe, at least four national carriers serve each EU member state, almost all controlling a share of the most valued, low-frequency wireless spectrum. European regulators do not allow a small handful of providers to maintain a stranglehold on the most valuable radio spectrum. Competitors have traditionally been offered a spectrum foundation to build networks that can stand up to their larger counterparts — the large multinationals or ex-state monopoly providers who had a head start providing service.

A report released by Finland market research firm Rewheel in May found clear evidence that the European model was benefiting consumers at the expense of rampant provider profits. Europeans in “progressive” markets that welcomed new competitive entrants pay lower prices for far more service. In some cases, the price differences between the five giant multinational providers that dominate Europe — Vodafone, KPN, France Telecom, Telefonica and Deutsche Telekom — were staggering. Competitors like Tele2, TeliaSonera, and “3″ charge up to ten times less than the larger companies for equal levels of service.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT Takeover List of European Wireless Carriers 7-15-13.flv

“Europe is ripe for competition,” reports Bloomberg News. Providers like AT&T may be preparing to embark on a European wireless acquisition frenzy, but Wall Street warns profits are much lower because of robust price competition in Europe that benefits consumers. (4 minutes)

The study also found a number of the largest European providers were following in the footsteps of Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Rogers, Bell, and Telus here in North America:

  • Prices were enormously higher in markets that lack effective competition from an upstart competitor able to deliver a comparable level of service. Smaller cell companies with very limited infrastructure or with non-favored spectrum could not provoke dominant players to cut prices because reception quality was starkly lower and consumers would have to cope with a reduced level of service. In Europe, when new competitors were able to fully build-out their networks using favorable spectrum, incumbents in these progressive markets slashed prices and boosted services to compete. In North America, upstart competitors cannot access favorable spectrum for financial reasons and the investor community has dismissed many of these players as afterthoughts, starving them of much-needed investment.
  • Large dominant European providers are now heavily lobbying for deregulation of merger and acquisition rules and want the right to acquire the competition entering their markets.
  • In almost half of the EU27 member state markets spectrum is utilized very inefficiently by the largest incumbent telco groups who are keen to protect their legacy fixed assets and cement their European dominance with more consolidation at the price of competition. In the United States and Canada, many of the largest providers crying the loudest for more wireless spectrum have still not used the spectrum already acquired.

competition slide

From the Finnish report:

The obvious question that needs to be asked is how is it technologically possible and economically viable for Tele2, 3 and TeliaSonera to offer four times more gigabytes of data usage at a fraction of the price charged by larger companies.

  • Do independent challengers have privileged access to more efficient technologies (i.e. LTE) than the E4 group members?
  • Do they hold relatively more spectrum capacity than the E4 group members?
  • Do independent challengers have access to more radio sites and their spectrum reuse factor is higher than the E4 group members?
  • Or are independent challengers (i.e. Tele2, DNA) unprofitable?

None of the above are true.

The answer is actually very simple. Independent challengers and incumbents such as TeliaSonera present mainly in progressive markets are utilizing the spectrum resources assigned to them. In contrast, incumbent telco groups [...] rather than utilizing their spectrum resources instead appear to be more concerned about keeping the unit price of mobile data very high [...] by restricting supply, the same way the lawful “cartel” of OPEC controls the price of oil by turning the tap off.

In progressive markets (where at least one independent challenger is present, triggering spectrum utilization competition) such as Finland, Sweden, Austria and the UK, mobile data consumption per capita is up to ten times higher than in protected markets.

In some European countries dominated by the biggest players, consumers are being gouged for service. Where robust competition exists, prices are dramatically lower.

The European nation where market conditions are most similar to the United States is Germany. Two large carriers dominate the market: Deutsche Telekom, the former state-owned telephone company and Vodafone, part owner of Verizon Wireless.

In Germany, consumers spending €20 ($26) end up with a data plan offering as little as 200MB of usage per month. In progressive markets in adjacent countries, spending the same amount will buy an unlimited use data plan or at least one offering tens of gigabytes of usage. In short, German smartphone service is up to 100 times more restrictive than that found in nearby Scandinavia or in the United Kingdom. These same two companies charge Germans double what English customers pay and a Berliner will end up with 22 times less data service after the bill is settled.

competition slide 2

So what is going on in Germany that allows the marketplace to stay so price-distorted? The fact all four significant competitors have close ties to or are owned by the large multinational telecom operators mentioned above. Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone, Telefonica and E-Plus, the latter one belonging to the Dutch KPN Group are all members of a lobbying organization attempting to persuade the EU to invest public funds into improving Europe’s wired broadband networks. Playing against that proposition is a growing number of Europeans moving to wireless. By charging dramatically higher wireless prices in Germany, all four companies have successfully argued that wireless adoption is not a significant reason to stall public financing of private broadband projects. In fact, Germany’s wireless growth is well below other EU nations.

The Finnish researchers point out the evidence of informal provider collusion is pretty stark in Germany:

“One would expect these ‘European Champions,’ especially the ones with lower market shares (Telefonica and E-Plus), to look at the smartphone centric market transformation as an opportunity to secure or improve their market share, especially in light of the fact they should have plenty of unused radio spectrum capacities to make their offers more consumer-appealing,” the report finds. But in fact these new entrants have priced their services very closely in alignment with the larger two.

“Undoubtedly, multinational incumbent telco groups and their investors have good reasons to lobby EU decision makers to enact friendly policies that will protect their inherited oligopolistic high profit margins,” the report states. “But will the German model serve the best interest of consumers and business in other EU member states? In Rewheel’s opinion, clearly not. Enforcing an overly ‘convergent player friendly’ German model would severely limit competition in the mobile markets, leading to high prices for consumers and the Internet of mobile things and sever under-utilization of the member states’ scarce national radio spectrum resources.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT Entry in Europe Not Seen as Competitive Threat 7-15-13.flv

Competition is brutal in Europe’s wireless marketplace — a factor Bloomberg News says could temper AT&T’s planned “European Wireless Takeover.” What makes the difference between enormous profits in North America and heavy price discounting in Europe? Spectrum policy, which gives European competitors a more level playing field. Bloomberg analysts speculate AT&T will bankroll its rumored European buyouts and mergers with the enormous profits it earns from U.S. subscribers.  (4 minutes)

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John Malone’s New Plans for Your Broadband: ISP Surcharges for Netflix, Online Video Use

Again with the domination thing.

Again with the domination and control thing.

Dr. John Malone is wasting no time reacquainting the cable industry with the kinds of classic power plays he used while running Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), then America’s largest and most powerful cable operator. Malone’s latest salvo: proposing new broadband pricing schemes that run afoul of Net Neutrality by charging consumers higher broadband prices if they watch online video services like Netflix.

Malone, increasing his influence over Charter Communications before launching the next wave of cable company consolidation, implied the industry is hurting from the lack of power and dominance it used to enjoy when it had an unfettered, territorial monopoly back in the 1980s. Malone told an audience at the annual shareholder meeting of Liberty Global he advocates getting the industry’s mojo back by returning to “value creation” pricing models — code language for new ways to charge customers higher prices or add-on fees.

Malone sees raising prices for Internet service key to bringing the industry back to the golden profits it used to enjoy selling television subscriptions, even as customers faced massive rate increases that doubled, tripled, or even quintupled rates for certain services.

Malone’s assessment of the eight current largest cable operators wiring the country: Snow White (Comcast) and the Seven Dwarfs (Everyone Else). The disorganized agendas of various cable operators are troublesome to Malone, who wants the industry to act in lock step with a unified, cooperating voice. Consumer groups call this kind of friendly cooperation “collusion.”

netflixpaywallMalone also thinks it is time to discard reliance on cable television to bring home the revenue and profits Wall Street expects. The industry should instead turn its earning attention to broadband, a product few Americans can live without. Malone believes the cable industry is not only positioned to control content distributed on its TV Everywhere online video platform for authenticated cable subscribers, but also have a say in competing content from Netflix, among others, which are totally reliant on the broadband pipes provided by ISPs.

With Netflix consuming a growing percentage of cable broadband resources, and possibly contributing to cable TV cord cutting, Malone does not advocate crushing its competition. Instead, he wants a piece of the action. How? By demanding online video providers pay for using cable broadband infrastructure. Consumers also face surcharges on their broadband accounts if they watch online video services like Netflix, Amazon, YouTube and other over-the-top-video. Malone also advocates the implementation of Internet Overcharging schemes like consumption billing and usage caps.

Malone’s “world of the future,” is, in reality, not much different from AT&T’s 2005 proclamation that use of AT&T’s broadband pipes should come at a cost to content producers.

Then-CEO Ed Whitacre’s public statements fueled support for Net Neutrality, which forbids broadband providers from traffic discrimination techniques like charging extra for certain content or artificially degrading service for producers who refuse to pay.

Malone’s incendiary ideas may be letting too much of the cat out of the bag, say some observers worried Malone’s rhetoric will remind people he was once labeled “the Darth Vader of Cable.” His statements could attract unnecessary attention that could be used to organize opposition.

Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that broadband providers and content producers were already secretly cutting deals to exchange bandwidth for money without the public scrutiny Malone’s comments will generate.

The newspaper reports some of the biggest Net Neutrality proponents around, particularly Google, are quietly paying millions to large cable companies to guarantee their content reaches customers as quickly and smoothly as possible.

internettollAmong the top recipients: Comcast, which collects $25-30 million a year and Time Warner Cable, which nets “tens of millions of dollars” from Google, Microsoft, and Facebook.

The payments are buried in the murky world of “interconnection agreements” governing the backbone pipes carrying huge amounts of web traffic from popular websites and those owned by large telecom providers. Originally, content and broadband providers agreed to peering arrangements that would trade traffic without payment to each other. But as bandwidth-heavy online video began to turn those shared connections into lopsided floods of movies and TV shows headed into subscriber homes against a trickle of content coming back from broadband customers, the cable and phone companies began crying foul.

Netflix has so far navigated around paying Internet Service Providers directly to support their video content. Instead, it is building its own specialized content distribution network intended for ISPs to more effectively and efficiently deliver high bandwidth video. Connections to the Netflix network are free of charge to participating providers, but many ISPs are demanding to be paid.

Some content providers are fearful if they don’t pay, the free “peering” links will become hopelessly overcongested and slow web pages and services to a crawl.

For Verizon customers, that may have already happened as Netflix streams began stuttering and buffering earlier this month.

Cogent, which supplies Verizon with a considerable amount of Netflix traffic, immediately pointed the finger at the phone company for artificially degrading the Netflix viewing experience. Verizon promptly shot back:

Cogent is not compliant with one of the basic and long-standing requirements for most settlement-free peering arrangements: that traffic between the providers be roughly in balance. When the traffic loads are not symmetric, the provider with the heavier load typically pays the other for transit. This isn’t a story about Netflix, or about Verizon “letting” anybody’s traffic deteriorate. This is a fairly boring story about a bandwidth provider that is unhappy that they are out of balance and will have to make alternative arrangements for capacity enhancements, just like any other interconnecting ISP.

Cable giants like Malone see the battle as one the cable industry will have a hard time losing, because it is the only technology present in most communities that can handle the traffic and the growing demand for faster speeds.

Cable operators think content companies have a license to print money, especially since their success is built partly on broadband networks they don’t own or pay for delivering content to customers. At the same time, content companies fear they could be forced out of business if the cable industry decides to give itself preferential treatment.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Paying ISPs to Move Content 6-20-13.flv

Reporters from The Wall Street Journal discuss the secret payment arrangements between content producers and some of America’s largest ISPs. (4 minutes)

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John Malone’s Vision of Cable’s Future: Mergers/Acquisitions/Bring Back the ‘Cable Mafia’

Time Warner Cable and Cablevision customers may one day end up as Charter Cable customers if John Malone has his way.

Time Warner Cable and Cablevision customers: Is Charter Cable in your future?

The best way the cable industry can grow revenue in the lucrative broadband business is to bring back the same type of collusion and control cable companies maintained over video programming 20 years ago.

Dr. John Malone did not want to sound nefarious in his recent interview with CNBC’s David Faber, but the new part-owner of Charter Communications has built a reputation as cable’s Darth Vader over the last 30 years. His detractors consider his way of doing business akin to a nationwide cable mafia, complete with exclusive, non-competitive territories that assure operators can charge sky-is-the-limit prices.

Malone is now back in the cable business in a big way, and analysts expect he will quickly amass influence in an industry he once led as CEO of the nation’s then-largest cable operator — Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI).

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Malone is Back Into Cable 4-13-13.mp4

Why is John Malone back in the cable business and why buy a piece of Charter Cable? Malone tells CNBC’s David Faber Charter is a company with enormous growth potential through mergers and acquisitions. CNBC says Malone could be targeting Time Warner Cable and Cablevision for acquisition by Charter as early as next year. “There is consolidation yet to be done,” Malone hints.  (7 minutes)

Malone notes the cable industry is on the cusp of transformative consolidation through collaborative agreements, mergers, and outright acquisitions both here and abroad. CNBC speculated that could begin with efforts to further reduce the number of cable operators in the United States, perhaps beginning with a deal by Charter Communications to acquire both Time Warner Cable and Cablevision, which could combine under Malone’s stewardship and Charter’s executive leadership to “compete” with Comcast.

Dr. John Malone

Dr. John Malone

CNBC reporters note Malone has high praise for Thomas Rutledge, CEO of Charter Communications. Rutledge’s earlier experience working for both Time Warner Cable and Cablevision could be an asset in combining all three companies into one. Analysts speculate such a deal could be pitched as early as 2014 when Time Warner Cable will undergo a management makeover with the departure of CEO Glenn Britt. CNBC also noted Cablevision’s imminent sale has been rumored for years, and current leader and family patriarch Chuck Dolan is 87 years old. With cheap credit and Malone’s business savvy, both companies could find themselves part of a Malone-engineered takeover that would vastly expand Charter Communications into the second largest cable operator in the country.

Malone sees the days of traditional cable television coming to an end as consumers turn to “over the top” online video for an increasing share of their viewing time. As cable television rates continue to increase, customers are cutting the cord. Malone believes today’s bloated cable packages are ripe for an upheaval from a-la-carte pricing or theme-based programming bouquets that break expensive sports programming or movie channels out of the traditional basic cable lineup. Malone even suspects a challenge to the industry’s current price models could surprisingly come from the programmers themselves.

Sports networks will be among the first to notice their affiliate revenue collected from cable and satellite companies (and passed on to customers in the form of higher rates) will stagnate as customers drop cable television. Declining viewer ratings also mean lower ad revenues. Malone believes at some point sports teams and/or programming networks will decide that the biggest barrier to winning new viewers is the $70-80 asking price for basic cable. If sports programmers find they can reach new audiences selling their programming online, direct-to-consumer, for $5-10 a month, the basic cable all-for-one-price model will quickly collapse.

“As the cable guys and the satellite guys start to lose customers to the over-the-top guys, some of those economics will be reflected back on the sports guys,” Malone said. “They’ll start losing advertising revenue. They’ll lose affiliate revenue. And they have to face reality that maybe you need to segregate your market like everybody else.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Malone on Unbundling Cable 4-13-13.mp4

John Malone predicts the demise of the traditional bundle of cable television programming within five years. The future is streamed video online, declares Malone, so it is important the cable industry move to manage that competitive threat by acquiring streaming competitors or launching their own services to assure video programming revenue can be protected.  (5 minutes)

non competeMalone sees the future sustainability of the cable industry dependent on the high revenue broadband business.

“I think it is at a point in history when the most addictive thing in the communications world is high-speed connectivity,” Malone told CNBC. “Everywhere in the world that we operate, we’ve just seen the public want more and more data rate. Whether it’s wireless or wired. There’s a big appetite for it. Cable technology right now is the most cost-effective way to deliver that growth in speed.”

Malone believes there is also plenty of room for revenue growth and cost-cutting, which he said can best be accomplished by getting other cable operators together to “cooperate” and “coordinate” broad scale broadband projects that counter competitive threats from third parties.

Malone helped pioneer the cable industry business practice of “don’t compete in my backyard and I won’t compete in yours,” an informal agreement among operators to stay within their own specific territories, safe and secure from competition. In the 1980s and 1990s, Malone’s TCI was one among many cable operators buying and swapping cable systems to build large, regional system “clusters” where only a single cable company provides service, winning economy of scale and a formidable presence that discouraged other wired competitors from entering the business. In most cities, only the deep pockets of AT&T (U-verse) and Verizon (FiOS) have managed to shake things up.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC Bring Back the Cable Mafia 4-13-13.mp4

Bring back the cable mafia? CNBC’s David Faber gets John Malone to admit vertical and horizontal integration — controlling the content and the pipeline — are important factors to protect cable revenue and expand American dominance in cable internationally. Malone is also a big supporter of industry consolidation and believes mergers and acquisitions are necessary to shrink the number of cable operators in the United States. (5 minutes)

John Malone's "cable mafia."

The cable mafia?

Malone wants broadband to be carefully managed under the industry’s own control and direction.

Faber asked if Malone wanted to bring back the days of the “cable mafia.”

“Yes, I think we do want to bring back the days of @Home, the days of Ted Turner, the days when we all got together, because together we provided national scale,” Malone said. “Now I think we have the opportunity to create global scale,” he said. “The goal is not to be bigger. The goal is to be more cost-effective.”

One significant way cable can push broadband and protect video revenue is to acquire or directly compete with online video providers like Netflix and Hulu.

“People aren’t going to stop watching TV,” Malone said. “They’re just going to watch it coming over the top.”

With easy credit at cheap rates and enormous cash on hand, Malone recommends cable operators get out their mergers and acquisitions checkbook and remember the days when cable operators controlled both cable television systems and most of the programming carried on those systems. For broadband, that means making sure companies control the pipeline and the content that travels across it.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNBC When the Money is Cheap Use It 4-13-13.mp4

Washington tax policies originally designed to expand access to cheap capital for business investment, hiring and expansion are instead being used to leverage buyouts and mergers. John Malone says Charter Communications will use “cheap money” at interest rates well below 5% and favorable corporate tax policies to fuel the next wave of cable industry consolidation. (2 minutes)

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Cable’s ‘Darth Vader’ is Back: John Malone’s Liberty Global Buys Virgin Media for $16.3 Billion

Malone

Malone

Dr. John Malone is a force to be reckoned with and the British are about to get an introduction with this morning’s announcement Liberty Global has acquired Virgin Media in a blockbuster $16.3 billion acquisition deal that will make Malone and Liberty one of the biggest broadband providers in the world. (The deal is valued at $23.3 billion after Liberty agrees to take on Virgin Media’s existing debts.)

Malone will take control of Britain’s largest cable operator and will now also control another 18 million broadband customers in Europe, particularly in Germany and Belgium. His biggest rival will be News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch who controls BSkyB, Britain’s largest multichannel provider.

Malone’s reputation for ruthlessness precedes him. In the early 1990s, then Sen. Al Gore, Jr., called Malone the Darth Vader of the cable industry. Gore also referred to Malone as the head of a mafia-like “cable industry Cosa Nostra” best known for customer abuse, cold-hearted mergers and acquisitions, and endless rate increases. In the 1980s and 1990s, Malone appeared regularly at congressional hearings to discuss cable industry abuses. At the time, Malone was CEO of America’s largest cable operator Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI). Today, most of those cable systems are known by another name — Comcast.

In the late 1980s, TCI got the ball rolling on massive rate increases for basic cable service. Other operators quickly followed. As rates exploded upwards, the phones began ringing in Washington from outraged constituents. Gore recounted several recent rate hikes in his own home state of Tennessee in one hearing:

  • In three years, rates increased 71% in Memphis,
  • 99% in Crossville,
  • 113% in Nashville,
  • 115% in Chattanooga,
  • and 116% in Knoxville.

Liberty Global logo 2012Under Malone’s leadership, TCI Cable raised rates 60 percent in 1992 alone, helping drive the enactment of the 1992 Cable Act which began to slow the pace of rate hikes. The bill was vetoed by then President George H.W. Bush but overridden in Congress after tens of thousands of constituent complaints poured into Washington. It was sweet justice for many elected officials who were on the receiving end of Malone’s hardball tactics for nearly 20 years. Malone was well known for retaliating against local officials who opposed his unfettered rate increases by suddenly cutting off service to customers and putting up on-screen messages in the place of favorite channels with the names and phone numbers of elected officials Malone claimed were responsible.

Under Malone’s leadership, city officials and consultants working to bring a competing cable operator into Jefferson City, Mo., got a taste of TCI’s ruthlessness when Paul Alden, TCI’s vice president and national director of franchising personally threatened the mayor and a consultant working on the project.

“We know where you live, where your office is and who you owe money to. We are having your house watched and we are going to use this information to destroy you. You made a big mistake messing with TCI. We are the largest cable company around. We are going to see that you are ruined professionally.” Alden warned.

TCI later also claimed it had a First Amendment right to provide service wherever it wanted, with or without a cable franchise. It also threatened any would-be competitor with ruin. In Jefferson City, that would-be competitor eventually won $35 million in damages in a jury trial over TCI’s tactics.

Virgin Media is doubling customer broadband speeds... for free.

Malone has made no secret he believes government officials are simply getting in his way. In 1999, The Guardian noted Malone is a big believer in telecom oligopolies:

He is scathing about regulatory attempts to prevent monopolies and mergers. Governments, he says, are “antediluvian” in their approach to the emerging new world economic order. Instead of trying to prevent mergers and collusion between media and communications companies, Malone says governments should actually promote the creation of “super-corporations” (such as his own) with enough capital to exploit the potential of new technology.

Malone has plenty of money to throw around. He engineered the sale of TCI Cable to AT&T and personally earned billions from the transaction. Three years later, AT&T sold those systems to Comcast.

Liberty Global has stayed on the sidelines of the cable business domestically, preferring to invest in cable networks and programming. Malone’s firm owns Starz!, which gave Netflix considerable trouble when the online video service lost the rights to a large number of recent movie titles. Netflix had negotiated a $30 million yearly deal with Liberty in 2008 which expired in early 2012. Renewal talks fell through when Liberty demanded $200 million annually to let Netflix keep streaming its movies.

Consumers in the United Kingdom may experience Dr. Malone’s idea of finesse soon enough, if shareholders and British regulators approve the buyout deal.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/BBC News Liberty Global to buy Virgin Media for 23bn 2-6-13.flv

BBC News reports the blockbuster deal will pit Dr. John Malone against his biggest rival, Rupert Murdoch. Virgin has five million customers in the UK and provides the country’s fastest broadband service. (2 minutes)

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Telecom Lobbyists Flood Media With Hit Pieces Against New Book Criticizing Telecom Monopolies

targetSusan Crawford’s new book, “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age,” is on the receiving end of a lot of heat from industry lobbyists and those working for shadowy think tanks and “consumer groups.”

Most of the critics have not disclosed their industry connections. Stop the Cap! will.

Crawford’s premise that Americans are suffering the impact of an anti-competitive marketplace for broadband just doesn’t “add up,” according to Zack Christenson and Steve Pociask, both with the American Consumer Institute Center for Citizen Research.

Christenson and Pociask’s rebuttal of Crawford’s conclusions about broadband penetration, price, and its monopoly/duopoly status relies on industry-supplied statistics and outdated government research. For instance, the source material on wireless pricing predates the introduction of bundled “Share Everything” plans from AT&T and Verizon Wireless that raised prices for many customers.

Their proposed solutions for the problems of broadband access, pricing, and competition come straight from AT&T’s lobbying priority checklist:

  • Free up more wireless spectrum, which is likely to be acquired by existing providers, not new ones that enter the market to compete;
  • Allow AT&T and other phone companies to abandon current copper-based networks, which would also allow them to escape legacy regulations that require them to provide service to consumers in rural areas.

One pertinent detail missing from the piece published in the Daily Caller is the disclosure Pociask is a a telecom consultant and former chief economist for Bell Atlantic (today Verizon). The “American Consumer Institute” itself is suspected of being backed by corporate interests from the telecommunications industry. ACI has closely mirrored the legislative agendas of AT&T and Verizon, opposing Net Neutrality, supporting cable franchise reform that allowed U-verse and FiOS to receive statewide video franchises in several states, and generally opposes government regulation of telecommunications.

Critics for hire.

Critics for hire.

The so-called consumer group’s website links primarily to corporate-backed astroturf and political interest groups that routinely defend corporate interests at the expense of consumers. Groups like the CATO Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Koch Brother-backed Heartland Institute, and the highly free-market, deregulation-oriented James Madison Institute are all offered to readers.

The Wall Street Journal trotted out Nick Schulz to handle its book review. Schulz is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, which is funded by corporate contributions to advocate a pro-business agenda.

Schulz attempts to school Crawford on the definition of “monopoly,” eventually suggesting “oligopoly” might be a more precise way to state it.

“Washington’s fights over telecommunications—and just about every other industrial sector—could use a lot less militancy and self-righteousness and a lot more sound economics,” concludes Schulz, while ignoring the fact interpretation of what constitutes “sound economics” is in the eye of the beholder. All too often those making that determination are backed by self-interested corporate entities with a stake in the outcome.

Hance Haney from the Discovery Institute claims Crawford’s conclusions are “misplaced nostalgia for utility regulation.” Haney cites AT&T’s breakup as the spark for competition in the telecommunications sector and proof that monopolies cannot stand when voice, video, and data service from traditional providers can be bypassed. That assumes you can obtain those services without the broadband service sold by the phone or cable company (that also likely owns your wireless service provider and controls access to cable television programming).

Haney also ignores the divorce of Ma Bell has been amicably resolved. AT&T and Verizon have managed to pick up most of their former constituent pieces (the Baby Bells) and today only “compete” with one another in the wireless sector, where each charges identically-high prices for service.

Crawford

Crawford’s critics often share a connection with the industry she criticizes in her new book.

Haney places the blame for these problems on the government. He argues exclusive cable franchise agreements instigated the lack of cable competition and allowed “hidden cross-subsidies” to flourish, causing the marketplace to stagnate. Haney’s argument ignores history. In the 1970s, before the days of USA, TNT and ESPN, the two largest cable operators TelePrompTer and TCI nearly went bankrupt due to excessive debt leverage. With a very low initial return on investment, exclusive cable franchise agreements were adopted by cities to attract cable providers to wire their communities. Wall Street argues to this day that there is no room for a high level of competition for cable because of infrastructure costs and the unprofitable chase for subscribers that will be asked to cover those expenses. Government was also not responsible for the industry drumbeat for consolidation, not competition, to protect turfs and profits.

The cable industry repeated that argument with cable broadband service, claiming oversight and regulations would stifle innovation and investment. The industry even won the right to exclude competitors from guaranteed access to those networks, claiming it would make broadband less attractive for future investment and expansion.

Haney never discloses the Discovery Institute was founded, in part, to support the elimination of government regulation of telecommunications networks. Broadband Reports also notes the Discovery Institute is subsidized by telecom carriers to make the case for deregulation at all costs.

The Discovery Institute is essentially a PR firm that will present farmed science and manipulated statistics for any donating constituents looking to make a political point.

Broadband for America, perhaps the largest industry-backed astroturf telecom group in the country and itself cited as a source by the American Consumer Institute, seized on the criticism of Crawford’s book for its own attack piece. But every book critic mentioned has a connection to the telecom industry or has ties to groups that receive substantial telecom industry contributions.

NetCompetition chairman Scott Cleland, who accused Crawford of cherry picking information, does not bother to mention NetCompetition is directly funded by the same telecom industry Crawford’s book criticizes. Cleland in fact works to represent the interests of his clients: large phone and cable operators.

Randolph May’s criticism of Crawford’s book is unsurprising when one considers he is president of the Free State Foundation, a special interest group friendly to large telecom companies. FSF also supports the work of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group with strong ties to AT&T.

Richard Bennett, who once denied to Stop the Cap! he worked for a K Street lobbyist (he does), attacked the book on behalf of his benefactors at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a group Reuters notes  receives financial support from telecommunications companies. He also received a $20,000 stipend from Time Warner Cable.

In fact, Broadband for America could not cite a single source criticizing Crawford’s book that does not have ties to the industry Crawford criticizes.

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Why is a Michigan Public Service Commissioner Carrying AT&T’s Water?

ori

Isiogu

A current member of the Michigan Public Service Commission is penning guest editorials featuring AT&T’s favorite talking points: promoting the company’s deregulatory agenda and providing false memes about Internet Overcharging schemes like usage caps and consumption billing.

Orjiakor N. Isiogu, co-vice chairman of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Committee on Telecommunications and member and immediate past chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission wrote nearly identical pieces appearing in The Hill, the Detroit Free-Press and the Battle Creek Enquirer that included misleading claims that could have come straight from an AT&T lobbyist’s “fact sheet.”

A sample:

The federal government has used the telecom industry as a model of how competition could be a better elixir than the guiding hand of government regulation. And the results are impressive. The high-speed Information Superhighway touches 95 percent of the U.S., and most consumers can choose from among six or more wireless or wireline providers (90 percent can choose from at least two). And the price of Internet access — measured by megabits per second — has fallen 87 percent since 1999, even as the speed has increased tenfold;

80 percent of U.S. homes now have access to download speeds of 100 megabits per second, and 4G wireless service will soon be available nationwide, with speeds of up to 20 megabits per second;

Despite the evidence, however, there are those who wonder whether there is sufficient competition for Internet access, whether speeds are too slow and prices too high. Others object to new pricing plans that allow a consumer to purchase the amount of bandwidth that best suits his needs.  In fact, some have asked the government to stop these new tailored pricing plans, even though these plans save nearly all consumers from having to underwrite the “outliers” whose monthly usage is gigantic — over 300 GBs a month or the equivalent of over 500 standard definition movies;

And if Teddy Roosevelt were with us today, he would likely argue that we can walk and chew gum at the same time, pointing to the banking industry as an example of industry excesses in need of a public check and the telecom industry as an example of how private competition, with occasional nudges, could better make the markets work.

In reality, if Teddy Roosevelt were alive today, he’d ask why a state commissioner working for the public is instead carrying water for the large telecommunications companies he oversees.

Did Roosevelt advocate the government keep their hands off AT&T and other consolidating telecom companies?

Did Roosevelt advocate the government keep their hands off AT&T and other consolidating telecom companies?

Isiogu doesn’t know his history either.

Roosevelt made no distinctions between the excesses of one industry over another. He strongly believed all major interstate corporations (and that would cover Isiogu’s friends at AT&T, Comcast, and other big telecom companies) should be subject to federal regulation and, in some cases, have their rates set by the government to ensure the public was charged fairly for the services they received. Roosevelt learned his lesson well from the oil, railway, and tobacco trusts his government sued to break up after years of consolidation and rapacious greed at the public’s expense. Those companies all claimed to be competitive as well.

Few industries have consolidated faster than the telecom sector, which is gradually rebuilding the Bell System in AT&T and Verizon’s image and a cable cartel that agrees never to compete directly with other cartel members.

Isiogu’s “facts” are disturbingly incomplete and misleading for a telecom regulator ostensibly serving the public interest.

For example, his claim that Americans can choose among six or more different providers ignores the fact AT&T and Verizon are counted twice (wired and wireless), no competition exists among multiple cable operators or phone companies, and many of the other options Isiogu counts (almost always wireless) do not provide coverage in suburban and rural Michigan. The average consumer in the U.S. has two practical choices for broadband — the cable or phone company.

While Isiogu sings the praises of American broadband, the rest of us have watched the price of Internet service continue to increase, whether customers want faster speeds or not. The industry itself admits it can raise prices because the competitive landscape and consumer love of broadband gives companies “pricing power.”

He also doesn’t mention the price of 100Mbps service or the fact it is not offered by either AT&T or (outside of one city) Time Warner Cable — both industry leaders. Wireless is no panacea either. 4G service may offer faster speeds, but usage plans that start with just a 1GB allowance make it hard (and expensive) to take advantage of the technology improvements. Just a few years ago those plans offered unlimited access.

Isiogu also tapdances around the fact no broadband provider in the country wants to sell a “pay for what you use” plan. Instead, companies create usage allowances that come with steep overlimit fees and, as AT&T executives have told shareholders, deliver limitless potential revenue growth as subscribers are forced to upgrade as their usage grows.

Most consumers favor and appreciate unlimited-use plans for predictable pricing and ease of mind. But flat rate plans ruin providers’ goals to monetize broadband usage and are usually eliminated when consumption pricing arrives, another fact Isiogu does not bother to disclose.

Isiogu has gotten remarkably cozy with the industry he oversees, even resorting to mind-bending pretzel logic that calls regulation for the banking sector a good idea and oversight of his industry friends a disaster.

What is disturbing is while Isiogu pens these industry friendly guest editorials in his spare time, he is also in a position of power to oversee and regulate these same companies in the public’s interest.

That represents a clear conflict of interest Teddy Roosevelt could see and feel from his grave.

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Stop the Cap!’s Election Guide for Broadband Enthusiasts

Tomorrow is election day in the United States. Stop the Cap! has reviewed both presidential candidates’ positions (or the lack thereof) as well as the past voting records and platforms of members of both major political parties. With this in mind, it is time for our election guide for broadband enthusiasts. Regardless of what candidate you support, please get out and vote!

Neither political party or candidate has been perfect on broadband advocacy or consumer protection.

We’ve been disappointed by the Obama Administration, whose FCC chairman has major problems standing up to large telecom companies and their friends in the Republican-led House of Representatives. Julius Genachowski promised a lot and delivered very little on broadband reform policies that protect both consumers and the open Internet. Both President Obama and Genachowski’s rhetoric simply have not matched the results.

Bitterly disappointing moments included Genachowski’s cave-in on Net Neutrality, leaving watered down net protections challenged in court by some of the same companies that praised Genachowski’s willingness to compromise. Genachowski’s thank you card arrived in the form of a lawsuit. His unwillingness to take the common sense approach of defining broadband as a “telecommunications service” has left Internet policies hanging by a tenuous thread, waiting to be snipped by the first D.C. federal judge with a pair of sharp scissors. But even worse, the FCC chairman’s blinders on usage caps and usage billing have left him unbelievably naive about this pricing scheme. No, Mr. Genachowski, usage pricing is not about innovation, it’s about monetizing broadband usage for even fatter profits at the expense of average consumers already overpaying for Internet access.

Obama

Unfortunately, the alternative choice may be worse. Let’s compare the two parties and their candidates:

The Obama Administration treats broadband comparably to alternative energy. Both deliver promise, but not if we wait for private companies to do all of the heavy lifting. The Obama Administration believes Internet expansion needs government assistance to overcome the current blockade of access for anyone failing to meet private Return On Investment requirements.

While this sober business analysis has kept private providers from upsetting investors with expensive capital investments, it has also allowed millions of Americans to go without service. The “incremental growth” argument advocated by private providers has allowed the United States’ leadership role on broadband to falter. In both Europe and Asia, even small nations now outpace the United States deploying advanced broadband networks which offer far higher capacity, usually at dramatically lower prices. Usually, other nations one-upping the United States is treated like a threat to national security. This time, the argument is that those other countries don’t actually need the broadband networks they have, nor do we.

The Obama Administration bows to the reality that private companies simply will not invest in unprofitable service areas unless the government helps pick up the tab. But those companies also want the government to spend the money with as little oversight over their networks as possible.

That sets up the classic conflict between the two political parties — Democrats who want to see broadband treated like a critically-important utility that deserves some government oversight in its current state and Republicans who want to leave matters entirely in the hands of private providers who they claim know best, and keep the government out of it.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s regular cave-ins for the benefit of Big Telecom brought heavy criticism from us for his “cowardly lion” act.

Just about the only thing the two parties agree on is reforming the Universal Service Fund, which had until recently been directing millions to keeping traditional phone service up and running even as Americans increasingly abandon landlines.

But differences quickly emerge from there.

The Obama Administration believes broadband is increasingly a service every American must be able to access if sought. The Romney-Ryan campaign hasn’t spoken to the issue much beyond the general Republican platform that market forces will resolve virtually any problem when sufficient demand arises.

Republicans almost uniformly vociferously oppose Net Neutrality, believing broadband networks are the sole property of the providers that offer the service. Many Republicans characterize Net Neutrality as a “government takeover” of the Internet and a government policy that would “micromanage broadband” like it was a railroad. Somehow, they seem to have forgotten railroad monopolies used to be a problem for the United States in the early 20th century. Robber barons, anyone?

President Obama pushed for strong Net Neutrality protections for Americans, but his FCC chairman Julius Genachowski caved to the demands of AT&T, Verizon, and the cable industry by managing Net Neutrality with a disappointing “light touch” for those providers. (We’d call it “fondling” ourselves.)

Democrats favor wireless auctions and spectrum expansion, but many favor limits that reserve certain spectrum for emerging competitors and for unlicensed wireless use. Republicans trend towards “winner take all” auctions which probably will favor deep-pocketed incumbents like AT&T and Verizon. The GOP also does not support holding back as much spectrum for unlicensed use.

Republicans have been strongly supporting the deregulation of “special access” service, critical to competitors who need backhaul access to the Internet sold by large phone companies like AT&T. Critics contend the pricing deregulation has allowed a handful of phone companies to lock out competitors, particularly on the wireless side, with extremely high prices for access without any pricing oversight. The FCC under the Obama Administration suspended that deregulation last summer, a clear sign it thinks current pricing is suspect.

Romney

Opponents of usage-based pricing of Internet access have gotten shabby treatment from both parties. Republicans have shown no interest in involving themselves in a debate about the fairness of usage pricing, but neither have many Democrats.

As for publicly-owned broadband networks, sometimes called municipal broadband, the Republican record on the state and federal level is pretty clear — they actively oppose community broadband networks and many have worked with corporate front groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to ban them on the state level. Democrats tend to be more favorable, but not always.

The biggest problem broadband advocates face on the federal and state level is the ongoing pervasive influence of Big Telecom campaign contributions. While politicians uniformly deny that corporate money holds any influence over their voting, the record clearly indicates otherwise. Nothing else explains the signatures from Democrats that received healthy injections of campaign cash from companies like AT&T, and then used the company’s own talking points to oppose Net Neutrality.

But in a story of the lesser of two-evils, we cannot forget AT&T spends even more to promote Republican interests, because often those interests are shared by AT&T:

  • AT&T has spent nearly $900,000 on self-identified “tea party” candidates pledged to AT&T’s deregulation policies;
  • AT&T gave nearly $2 million to the Republican Governors Association — a key part of their ALEC agenda;
  • AT&T gave $100,000 to everyone’s favorite dollar-a-holler Astroturf group — The Heartland Institute, which opposes Net Neutrality and community broadband.
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Enabling Corporate Bullies: Big Cable Loves Fewer Rules, Weakened Oversight

“We know where you live, where your office is and who you owe money to. We are having your house watched and we are going to use this information to destroy you. You made a big mistake messing with TCI. We are the largest cable company around. We are going to see that you are ruined professionally.” – Paul Alden, TCI’s vice president and national director of franchising to an independent consultant hired to review competing cable operators for Jefferson City, Mo., in a historical example of cable industry abuse

The Federal Communications Commission last week voted unanimously to expire rules that required cable operators to make their programming available on fair and reasonable terms to competitors. Big mistake.

We have been here before. Let us turn back the clock to the days before the FCC and Congress mildly reined in the cable television industry with the types of pro-consumer regulations Chairman Genachowski and others have now let expire. Why were these rules introduced in the first place? Because years of industry abuse heaped on consumers and local communities took their toll, with high prices for poor service, outrageous corporate bullying tactics, and endless litigation to hamper or stop consumer relief.

How long will it take for the industry to resume the same abusive practices that forced the FCC and Congress to finally act once before?

The Central Telecommunications. v. Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI): The Poster Child for Cable Industry Abuse

Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI) was the nation’s largest cable operator. Later known as AT&T Cable, the company was eventually sold to Comcast.

Back in the 1980s, before the days of direct broadcast satellite competition like DirecTV and Dish, and years before telco-TV was allowed by law, the cable industry totally dominated the video marketplace. The only challenges came from incredibly rare competing cable TV providers or three million home satellite dish owners or wireless cable subscribers.

The industry’s only check on unhampered monopoly growth came from local authority over cable operations through the cable franchising process. If a cable company got out of control or did not offer the programming or service a community found adequate, it could offer a franchise to another company, effectively kicking bad actors out of town.

In Jefferson City, Mo., the local cable operator during the 1980s was Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI). It had acquired the franchise in the city by buying out the original provider in the late 1970s. TCI had been buying a lot of smaller cable operators around the country under the direction of then CEO John Malone. By 1981, it had grown to the largest cable operator in the country, and few dared confront the well-heeled operator, which had a legal budget greater than the operating budgets of some communities TCI served. TCI was later acquired by AT&T Cable, which in turn sold its cable systems to Comcast, which continues to operate them to this day.

In 1980, Jefferson City officials decided it would be prudent to make sure they were getting the best cable service possible, so as TCI’s franchise agreement reached expiration, the city issued a “request for proposals” offering other cable companies a chance to bid for the right to serve the community of around 38,000. For TCI, this was tantamount to a declaration of war, and the cable company meant business. Malone equated anything threatening a permanent cable franchise for TCI as something like an act of government theft. In books later written about the events in Jefferson City, even some TCI executives admitted they were “horrified by the sleaziness” of the kind of hardball tactics involved, comparing them to a “B-movie.”

TCI revealed it would stop at nothing to keep competitors away from their territories and drag out years of litigation. Central Telecommunications, Inc., v. TCI Cablevision, Inc., revealed exactly how far TCI was willing to go:

From: Cutthroat: High Stakes & Killer Moves on the Electronic Frontier, By Stephen Keating

Cajole the mayor into canceling competitive bidding. In early 1980, after Jefferson City made it known TCI might get some competition, the company quickly met with the mayor hoping to persuade him to renew TCI’s franchise without a competitive bid process, so as to avoid a “frontal attack” by competitors.

Threaten the independent consultant. In December, 1980 the city hired Elmer Smalling, an industry consultant, to independently evaluate various bids from cable operators willing to serve Jefferson City. TCI immediately began publicly attacking his qualifications in a way the court later found to be defamatory. The court case documents Paul Alden, TCI’s vice president and national director of franchising, making personal threats against Smalling.  A sample:

“We know where you live, where your office is and who you owe money to. We are having your house watched and we are going to use this information to destroy you. You made a big mistake messing with T.C.I. We are the largest cable company around[.] We are going to see that you are ruined professionally.”

It got worse for Smalling. At this same time, Warner-Amex (another large cable company now known as Time Warner Cable) was a client of Smalling’s. Alden contacted Warner-Amex about Smalling. Following the threats, Smalling lost Warner-Amex as a client.

City Attorney Thomas Utterback later wrote a memo to the City Council in which he described TCI as a “relentless corporate bully.”

Threaten would-be competitors. On several occasions, from January of 1981 to the summer of 1981, Alden repeatedly telephoned Robert Brooks, chief operating officer of Teltran, a company which submitted a bid for the city’s franchise, and threatened him that unless Teltran withdrew from the bidding process, TCI would make trouble for Teltran in Columbia, Missouri, where it operated a cable television franchise. Teltran subsequently dropped out of the bidding process on the ground there was a “distasteful environment” in Jefferson City.

Another competitor, Central Telecommunications, became a defendant in a TCI lawsuit challenging the city’s right to request proposals from other cable companies. TCI argued it now had a 1st Amendment right of free speech to serve Jefferson City residents regardless of the wishes of city officials. In a wide ranging series of subpoenas, TCI demanded the bank handling Central’s financing turn over a “very wide range of potentially confidential records,” which according to Central was an effort to destroy its financing agreement with the bank.

Malone

Threaten customers. TCI warned customers that unless it won the cable franchise for Jefferson City, it would immediately shut off its cable system and leave customers without service, potentially for years, until Central built its own system from scratch. TCI officials said “it would not sell ‘one bolt’ of its system to whoever received the new franchise and that it would ‘rather have [its system] rot on the pole’ than sell it to a competitor at any cost.”

TCI’s system manager in Jefferson City told elderly residents of a senior citizens’ home that TCI would cut off service if denied a franchise, and the residents would be without television for two years pending construction of a new system because the concrete walls of their residence would not allow reception of over-the-air stations.

Lie, Lie, and Lie Some More. In one City Council meeting, Alden wildly claimed that TCI was the nation’s largest distributor of satellite dish antennas, with “an exclusive” right to sell in the state of Missouri. TCI promised that if the city renewed its franchise agreement, it would keep satellite dishes out of Jefferson City. If the franchise was not renewed, Alden promised to “flood the city with satellite dishes,” denying the city franchise fees. Alden later admitted both statements were untrue.

Threaten the mayor’s office. Although the mayor has never disclosed exactly what TCI threatened him with, the public record shows in March 1981, Alden called the mayor and threatened to turn the system off unless TCI’s franchise was renewed. TCI also filed an expensive lawsuit against Jefferson City regarding the way it handled its request for proposals.

By the fall of that year, TCI was meeting with city attorney Utterback in secret negotiations to renew its cable franchise, in direct violation of the city’s request for proposals  which required all negotiations to be open, as well as Missouri’s “sunshine laws.” By next spring, the mayor had privately notified council members he would veto any franchise renewal awarded to anyone other than TCI, which he later admitted was a condition imposed by TCI during its secret negotiations.

On January 25, 1982, the City Council provisionally awarded the franchise to… Central Telecommunications. TCI immediately refused to pay the city the prior year’s franchise fees, in excess of $60,000. It also reminded the mayor of his obligations to TCI as part of the secret franchise renewal negotiations held the prior fall. On April 20, 1982, the City Council passed the ordinance awarding a franchise to Central. The vote was six in favor and four against. The mayor vetoed the ordinance. The council then deadlocked five-to-five on awarding a franchise to TCI and the mayor cast the deciding vote in favor of that company. The next day, TCI dismissed its lawsuit against the city and paid the withheld franchise fees.

In the end, several courts upheld tens of millions in damages for Central Telecommunications, TCI’s lawsuit was dismissed at the company’s request, Mr. Alden was summarily dismissed by TCI after Malone referred to him as a “loose cannon,” and Jefferson City was stuck with several additional years of lousy service from TCI.

But TCI’s “bad corporate citizen” practices would come back to haunt the cable juggernaut, eventually failing to win assignments for two $800 million orbital slots for a direct broadcast satellite service the company proposed. After the Jefferson City experience, even the FCC could not, in good conscience, reward TCI with satellite slots it wanted for a “competing satellite service” it would sell through its own cable companies.

The memories of FCC officials are evidently short. Giving cable operators an inch has historically bought them a mile, paid for by consumers. Mandating easy to understand rules requiring cable operators sell programming to competitors on fair and reasonable terms is sound policy whether there is competition or not. Removing those rules or watering them down only promotes the kind of mischief that, when unchecked, leads to these kinds of horror stories. History need not repeat itself.

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Four Telcos-Four Stories: The Big Money is in Commercial Services — Today: CenturyLink

Four of the nation’s largest phone companies — two former Baby Bells, two independents — have very different ideas about solving the rural broadband problem in the country. Which company serves your area could make all the difference between having basic DSL service or nothing at all.

Some blame Wall Street for the problem, others criticize the leadership at companies that only see dollars, not solutions. Some attack the federal government for interfering in the natural order of the private market, and some even hold rural residents at fault for expecting too much while choosing to live out in the country.

This four-part series will examine the attitudes of the four largest phone companies you may be doing business with in your small town.

Today: CenturyLink — Our Commercial Customers Deliver 60% of Our Revenue; Our Attention Follows Accordingly

“Business customers now drive about 60% of our total operating revenues,” CenturyLink CEO Glenn F. Post III told investors in March. “Our focus on delivering advanced solutions and data hosting services to businesses are key factors in improving our top line revenue trend.”

With residential customers departing traditional landlines at an average rate of 5-10 percent a year, keeping customers has become an important priority for a number of phone companies, especially those who have plowed millions into mergers and acquisitions to build their businesses. For the past several years, CenturyLink has been acquiring small, regional independent phone companies, a former Baby Bell, and a competing landline provider Sprint used to think would be an important part of its business.

Century Telephone’s original customers were mostly cobbled together from acquisitions from other phone companies, including names like GTE, Central Telephone Company of Ohio (part of Centel), Pacific Telecom, Mebtel and GulfTel. But the biggest expansion of the company would come from acquisitions of Sprint-spinoff Embarq and former Baby Bell Qwest.

Today CenturyLink operates one of the nation’s largest independent phone companies, and serves markets large (primarily on the west coast) and small (rural communities primarily in the southeast, Missouri, Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin).

CenturyLink’s revenues have often been uneven, mostly because of its acquisitions, landline losses, and the effects from competition in its larger markets. While CenturyLink’s acquisitions grew the company, they also saddled it with landline networks that have proved inadequate to meet the growing needs of customers. With a disconnect rate running between 6.4% this quarter and 7.6% in the same quarter a year ago, residential customers are leaving their voice lines behind in favor of cell phones and broadband customers are departing for faster speeds available from cable operators.

These “legacy services” lost the company $124 million in revenue — an 8.1% decrease over the past quarter. As customers depart, so do CenturyLink employees that used to handle the old landline network.

To make up the lost revenue, CenturyLink has gotten more aggressive in other areas of its business:

  • Increasing focus on business/commercial and governmental services, including managed hosting, cloud computing and other commercially-targeted broadband initiatives;
  • Deployment of fiber to cell towers as a growing revenue source;
  • Limited, but ongoing rural broadband expansion;
  • Development of Prism TV — a fiber to the neighborhood service targeting residential customers.

CenturyLink calls these their four key initiatives towards revenue stability, stable cash flow, and growth.

In the business services segment, CenturyLink sees enormous revenue potential selling businesses access to data centers, co-location services, and ethernet-speed broadband. Last year, CenturyLink acquired Savvis, an important enterprise-level service provider and owner of 50 data centers. Phone companies like CenturyLink are also in a race with large cable operators to be the first to offer cell phone companies access to “fiber-to-the-tower” service to support exploding data growth on 4G wireless networks.

Faster DSL, Fiber to the Neighborhood-Broadband Key to Keeping Residential Customers Happy

CenturyLink’s network map showing both its own service areas, and infrastructure obtained from the acquisition of Qwest.

For consumers, CenturyLink has been moderately aggressive in some areas boosting speeds of its DSL services. The company claims 70% of their DSL-capable landline network provides speeds of at least 6Mbps. At least 55% supports 10Mbps or higher; over 25% can manage 20Mbps or faster.

The company’s Prism TV service, a fiber to the neighborhood upgrade comparable to AT&T U-verse, is now available to nearly 6.3 million homes and apartments in eight cities. By year end, CenturyLink says it will increase that to 7.1 million homes.

Prism represents a significant portion of CenturyLink’s investment in its residential business. So far, the results have not proven a major threat to the competition. CenturyLink added 15,000 Prism subscribers in the first quarter, but the company only has 8% of the market. Cable and satellite providers continue to dominate. But the company says Prism is helping to keep the customers they already have.

CenturyLink says it now taking Prism TV west into former Qwest territory, starting in and around Colorado Springs, Col.

Customers will likely be offered 130 channels starting at $59.99 a month with a free set top box (new customers typically receive a $20 monthly discount for the first six months of service).

The phone company will compete with Comcast, which sells 80 channels for $56 a month (new customers get a $26/mo discount for the first six months).

With CenturyLink providing a better deal, at least for television service, Colorado City officials hope the competition will bring down rates, at least for new customers. That may be exactly what happens, predicts Mark Ewell, a senior account executive with Windstream Communications.

“We could see some pressure on Comcast’s rates. I would like to see Comcast adopt a price model that doesn’t go up after a promotional period,” Ewell told The Gazette.

“CenturyLink is likely to be more of a threat to the satellite providers like DirecTV and Dish because they have a much higher market share in Colorado Springs than they do in most other markets because so many customers left Adelphia [acquired in bankruptcy by Comcast] when it had its financial problems. Those customers have already shown a willingness to leave the cable television provider and try another service.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CenturyLink Prism TV.flv

CenturyLink shows off its new Prism TV offering in this company-produced video.  (2 minutes)

CenturyTel acquires Embarq and changes its name to CenturyLink to reduce the emphasis on its traditional landline business.

CenturyLink’s arrival in the triple-play business of phone, Internet, and television service could be the first serious competition Comcast has gotten outside of satellite providers. WideOpenWest had a franchise to provide service in 2000 but never did. Falcon Broadband won a franchise in 2006, but only provides service to around 1,500 customers in the Banning Lewis Ranch, Black Forest, and Falcon areas. Porchlight Communications received a franchise in 2007, installed service for 500 customers but ultimately never charged them. Porchlight’s IPTV service never worked properly with its chosen set top boxes. That fatal flaw put the company out of the cable business, and the company turned the porch light off for good, abandoning its franchise.

Rural Broadband: Unless the Government Delivers More Subsidies, Rural Customers Will Continue Waiting

In late July, CenturyLink announced it would accept $35 million from the Federal Communications Commission’s new Connect America Program (CAP) to deploy broadband to homes and businesses in rural, broadband-deprived parts of its service area.

CenturyLink has the capability to extend broadband to 100 percent of its customers, but not the willingness to invest the money to make that happen, critics contend. CenturyLink freely admits it applies a financial test when considering when and where to expand its DSL broadband service into its most rural service areas.

In short, the company must recoup its costs of deploying broadband within a certain time frame, and be confident that a certain percentage of customers are going to sign up for broadband service, before it will agree to make the investment. Virtually all of CenturyLink’s current service areas have already met or failed that test, which leaves an indefinite group of broadband “have’s” and “have-nots.”

To shake up the status quo, the FCC proposed to shift Universal Service Fund money, collected from all phone customers, away from landline service towards rural broadband deployment. This invites CenturyLink, and other phone companies, to run those financial tests again. With urban customers footing part of the bill, theoretically more homes should squeak past the return on investment test.

In fact, more homes will finally get CenturyLink broadband — around 45,000 in semi-rural and suburban areas where the costs to provide the service are not as great as in truly rural areas.  The FCC is offering to cover just short of $800 per household to cut the costs of deploying rural Internet access.

But CenturyLink complains the money is not nearly enough to solve the really-rural broadband problem.

“In very rural areas where we really have the greatest need for support, this amount, on a per-location basis, will not be enough to allow us to really do an economic build-out,” Post told investors this spring. “So we’re still in the process really of evaluating our opportunities….”

That will leave CenturyLink likely spending considerably more upgrading its urban landline network to support Prism TV instead of supplying rural broadband service.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CenturyLink History.flv

Jeff Oberschelp, vice president and general manager of CenturyLink of Nevada discusses the past history of CenturyLink and where phone companies are going in the future in this company-friendly interview.  (6 minutes)

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Special Report: The Return of Wireless Cable, Bringing Along 50Mbps Broadband

A Short History of Wireless Cable

Spectrum offered Chicago competition to larger ON-TV, selling commercial-free movies and sports on scrambled UHF channel 66 (today WGBO-TV).

Long before many Americans had access to cable television, watching premium commercial-free entertainment in the 1970s was only possible in a handful of large cities, where television stations gave up a significant chunk of their broadcast day to services like ON-TV, Spectrum, SelecTV, Prism, Starcase, Preview, VEU, and SuperTV. For around $20 a month, subscribers received a decoder box to watch the encrypted UHF broadcast programming, which consisted of sports, popular movies and adult entertainment. The channels were relatively expensive to receive, suffered from the same reception problems other UHF stations often had in large metropolitan areas, and were frequently pirated by non-paying customers with modified decoder boxes.

With the spread of cable television into large cities, the single channel over-the-air services were doomed, and between 1983-1985,virtually all of their operations closed down, converting to all-free-viewing, usually as an independent or ethnic language television outlet.

But the desire for competition for cable television persisted, and in the mid-1980s the Federal Communications Commission allocated two blocks of frequencies for entertainment video delivery. The FCC earlier allocated part of this channel space to Instructional Television Fixed Services (ITFS) for programming from schools, hospitals, and religious groups, which could use the capacity to transmit programming to different buildings and potentially to viewers at home with the necessary equipment.

Home Box Office got its start broadcasting on microwave frequencies before moving to satellite.

In practice, ITFS channels allocated during the 1970s were underutilized, because running such an operation was often beyond the budgets and technical expertise of many educational institutions. Premium movie entertainment once again drove the technology forward. After signing off at the end of the school day, Home Box Office, Showtime, and The Movie Channel signed on, using microwave technology to distribute their services to area cable systems and some subscribers. As those premium services migrated to satellite distribution beginning in 1975, reallocation for a new kind of “wireless cable TV” became a reality.

Wireless cable (technically known as “multichannel multipoint distribution service”) began in earnest in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with a package of around 32 channels — typically over the air stations, popular cable networks, and one or two premium movie channels. Some operations in smaller cities sought to beam just a channel or two of premium movies or adult entertainment to paying subscribers, the latter at a substantial price premium. Installation costs paid by providers were more affordable than traditional cable television — around $350 for wireless vs. $1,000 for cable television. That made wireless attractive in rural areas where installation costs for cable television could run even higher.

However, it was not too long before wireless cable operators ran into problems with their business models. Obtaining affordable programming was always difficult. Some cable networks, then-owned by large cable systems, either refused to do business with their wireless competitors or charged discriminatory rates to carry their networks. By the time legislative relief arrived, the wireless industry realized they now had a capacity problem. As cable television systems were being upgraded in the 1990s, the number of channels cable customers received quickly grew to 60 or more (with many more to come with the advent of “digital cable”). Wireless cable was stuck with just 32 channels and a then-analog platform. Satellite television was also becoming a larger competitive threat in rural areas, with DirecTV and Dish delivering hundreds of channels.

American Telecasting gave up its wireless cable ventures, under such names as People’s Wireless TV and SuperView in 1997, selling out to companies including Sprint and BellSouth (today AT&T). BellSouth pulled the plug on the services in February, 2001.

Wireless providers simply could not compete with their smaller packages, and most closed down or sold their operations, often to phone companies. The few remaining systems, mostly in rural areas, have typically combined their wireless frequencies with satellite provider partners to deliver television, slow broadband, and IP-based telephone service.

Rebooting Wireless Cable for the 21st Century

By the early-2000′s the Federal Communications Commission proposed a new allocation for a “Multichannel Video and Data Distribution Service” (MVDDS). Designed to share the 12.2-12.7GHz band with Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) services DirecTV and Dish, MVDDS was partly envisioned as a potential way to deliver local stations to satellite subscribers over ground-based transmitters. But things have evolved well beyond that concept, especially after both satellite providers began using “spot beams” to deliver local stations to different regions from their existing fleet of orbiting satellites.

MVDDS was ultimately opened up to be either a competing cable television-like service or for wireless broadband, or both. Michael Powell, then-chairman of the FCC during the first term of George W. Bush, said the technology was free to develop as providers saw fit:

What is MVDDS? The short answer is that we do not know.  Its name, Multichannel Video Distribution and Data Service, seems to suggest everything is possible – and perhaps it is.

But the service rules the Commission has adopted do not require MVDDS to provide any particular kind of service – it could be a multichannel video, or data, or digital radio service, or any other permutation on spectrum use.

The Commission was once in the business of requiring spectrum holders to provide a certain type of service.  That approach failed because government is a very bad predictor of technology and markets – both of which move a lot faster than government.  Over the past decade or so, the Commission has adopted more flexible service rules that bound a service based largely on interference limitations and its allocation (fixed or mobile, terrestrial or satellite).  In this Order, we follow that flexible model for MVDDS.

In 2004 and 2005, licenses to operate MVDDS services were opened up for auction, and a handful of companies won the bulk of them: MDS America, which built a 700-channel wireless cable system in the United Arab Emirates, DTV Norwich, an affiliate of cable operator Cablevision, and South.com, which is really satellite provider Dish Network. Another significant winner was Mr. Bruce E. Fox, who wants to partner with other providers to finance and operate MVDDS services.

Cablevision and Fox are the two most active license recipients at the moment.

A Look at Today’s MVDDS Wireless Players

Fox launched Go Long Wireless in Baltimore as a demonstration project. Go Long transmits its signal from the roof of the World Trade Center at the Baltimore Inner Harbor to the Emerging Technology Center, a business incubator site a few miles away. Fox believes the technology is especially suited to multi-dwelling units like apartment complexes and condos. He plans to work with other service providers who will market and bill the service under their own brand names. Fox does not seem to be interested in challenging the marketplace status quo. He does not believe in using MVDDS to provide television service, for example. In Fox’s view, the real money is in broadband and Voice over IP telephone service.

Cablevision’s involvement is more direct-to-consumer. Its Clearband service– now operating under the new brand ‘OMGFAST’ — is now selling up to 50/3Mbps wireless broadband service in the Deerfield Beach, Fla. area. The company has had nothing to say about whether this service is slated to expand, and if it does, Cablevision will not be permitted to operate it in areas where they already provide cable service, due to the FCC’s cross-ownership rules.

OMGFAST originally bundled voice service in its broadband packages, which it sold at different price points: 12Mbps for $39.95 a month, 25Mbps for $59.95 a month, and 50Mbps at $79.95. The company also tested a 50Mbps promotion priced at $29.95 a month for three months, $59.95 ongoing. Today it offers a better deal: $29.95 a month for 50Mbps service as an ongoing rate. (Expect to pay $10 a month more for mandatory equipment rental, and $14.95 a month if you also want voice service.)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Clearband FAST 50 Mbps Internet.flv

Here is a promotional video explaining how Clearband (now OMGFAST) wireless broadband works. (3 minutes)

MVDDS currently delivers broadband with similar constraints cable systems operate under — namely, download speeds are much faster than upload speeds. That is because upstream bandwidth relies on another transmission technology, often WiMAX, in the 3.65 GHz or 5 GHz bands.

The wireless technology is also very “line of sight,” meaning the tower must be within six miles of the subscriber and not blocked by any obstructions. Hills, buildings, even heavy foliage can all block MVDDS signals the same way satellite signals can be blocked (they share the same frequencies).

Most customers end up with an antenna that very much resembles a traditional satellite dish from DirecTV or Dish, mounted on a roof. To maximize available bandwidth, MVDDS uses a configuration similar to cellular systems, with up to 900Mbps of total bandwidth available to each 90-degree narrow beam sector.

Cablevision has MVDDS licenses to serve most large cities in the United States.

The question is, how will license holders ultimately use the technology. Although originally proposed as a competitor to traditional cable or satellite TV, deregulation has left the fate of MVDDS in the hands of the operators.

Some are considering not selling the service to consumers at all, but rather making a market out of providing backhaul connectivity for cell towers. Dish may be interested in using its licenses to offer customers a triple play package of broadband and phone service with its satellite TV package. Nobody seems particularly interested in providing television service over MVDDS, primarily because programmers’ demands for higher carriage payments would cut into revenue.

Even Cablevision isn’t completely sure what it wants to do. Although it currently is trialing broadband and phone service in Florida, the company earlier petitioned the FCC for increased power to establish a more suitable wireless backhaul service it can sell to mobile phone companies.

For the moment, reviews seem relatively positive for the Florida market test. Of course, as more customers pile on a wireless service, the less speed becomes available to each customer. OMGFAST does not appear to be currently concerned, noting it has no usage caps on its service.

Want to know which provider may be coming to your area? See below the jump for a list of the top-three bid winners and the cities they are now licensed to serve, in order of market size.

… Continue Reading

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