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Special Report: Wheeling ‘n Dealing At the California Public Utilities Commission – The Peevey Years

special report

Part One: The Peevey Era (2002-2014)

California’s Public Utilities Commission seems increasingly unable to escape its reputation for backroom dealing, close personal ties to lobbyists working for the utility companies it regulates, and a growing conclusion it could care less about the interests of ordinary California consumers it is supposed to protect. That’s great news if you are an energy or telecommunications company with business before the commission, but bad news for consumers.

In this first part in a series of reports, Stop the Cap! investigates corruption at the highest levels of the California regulator. Search warrants have been executed, documents seized, and top officials of one of the state’s largest utilities have been fired. But it that enough for Californians to finally get a fair shake?

Before a series of scandals reached the front pages of state newspapers last year, many Californians would be hard-pressed to explain what “CPUC” stood for, much less take an active interest in its regulatory and oversight activities. That may have made it easier for the California Public Utilities Commission to escape the close scrutiny other state agencies receive, at least until local news outlets turned their investigative reporters loose on the agency and its president.

The CPUC regulates the state’s energy and telecommunications companies, at least as far as federal and state laws allow these days. Most of the proceedings are conducted in public, but a great deal of the real business takes place behind closed doors in private. Sometimes these “ex parte” meetings and communications are disclosed to the public. But uncomfortably often, the participants look for excuses not to report.

Peevey

Peevey

The Michael Peevey Era: Bending Over Backwards for Utilities Who Returned the Favor

For most of the last 12 years, the man who presided over the CPUC was Mr. Michael Peevey.

Then Gov. Gray Davis appointed Peevey to lead the CPUC on New Year’s Eve 2002, replacing its incumbent president Loretta Lynch (no relation to the current Obama Administration’s attorney general nominee). Lynch had been a strong consumer advocate at the commission and tried to hold back utility company rate increases at a time when Enron was manipulating wholesale energy prices in the state. When Peevey and Lynch served together as commissioners at the CPUC, their relationship was clearly strained, with several testy exchanges taking place between the two. In general, they opposed each other. Peevey supported deregulation, Lynch sought to protect consumers from the effects of a manipulated, deregulated marketplace.

Consumer advocates like the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights pounced on the nomination, predicting it would be a disaster for California consumers.

”Making Mike Peevey the head of the PUC is like asking [Enron’s CEO] Kenneth Lay to run the [Securities & Exchange Commission],” said FTCR’s senior consumer advocate, Doug Heller in January 2003. ”After what the energy industry did to California, it is shocking that Davis would give an energy company executive such a prominent position. Not only has Davis failed to place an independent consumer voice on the commission, he is letting the energy industry run the agency.”

Peevey was a company man through and through, spending decades working for California utilities, most recently as president of Edison International and its well-known subsidiary, Southern California Edison (SCE). He was also well-connected politically, married to Democratic state senator Carol Liu. He left Edison in 1993 in what a 1997 Wall Street Journal piece called “a less-than-amicable separation” to do consulting work for 18 months.

Peevey Made Millions While Supporting Energy Deregulation That Brought Higher Rates and Rolling Blackouts for California Consumers

In 1995, Peevey launched New Energy Ventures, Inc., luring a former president of the CPUC to the venture, which would take advantage of energy generation deregulation in California to compete with SCE for customers. Peevey was a staunch advocate and lobbied hard for energy deregulation in California.

California’s deregulation plan required the state’s three large investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—to sell part of their generating capacity, making them dependent on a competitive, open power generation market to effectively serve customers. It also discouraged companies from entering into long-term supply contracts with independent power producers to create a hedge against sudden price spikes. As a result, the utilities had to rely on the newly created spot wholesale market for about half of the electricity their customers demanded. Among the largest players in California’s energy market was Enron Energy Services (EES), based in Houston, Tex.

Peevey was a true believer in deregulation and saw enormous money could be made promising deep discounts on energy costs to large businesses in California. At one point, Peevey said he expected to market energy the way others market phone service. Like many of the players in California, Peevey’s NEV was an energy middleman. It bought wholesale power generated by private producers and resold it to large grocery and department store chains, manufacturers, and even the U.S. Dept. of Defense at a profit.

Peevey sold his energy services company to energy giant AES for $90 million.

Peevey sold his energy services company to energy giant AES for $90 million.

Peevey had the good fortune to sell his venture to AES Corp., the largest U.S. developer of power plants, in 1999 for $90 million in cash and stock. He exited the business just six months before the start of the California Energy Crisis, which caused massive price increases and rolling blackouts across the state between 2000 and 2001. State deregulation, lack of federal oversight, and illegal market manipulation by Enron and others enriched the deregulated energy trading market while causing the bankruptcy of PG&E and the near bankruptcy of SCE in early 2001.

What deregulation advocates promised would be a veritable free fall of energy prices in the free market turned out to be a catastrophe for California and its citizens. The state lost an estimated $45 billion from deregulation and the illegal acts of Enron, as well as the loss of more than 1,300 utility jobs. Enron produced little power itself and owned relatively little in the way of hard assets. Like the big banks and investment firms that created wealth through trading barely tangible assets, securities and debt, Enron was less akin to PG&E and more closely resembled Goldman Sachs. Enron relied on low margin energy trading and energy supply contracts. It existed in a Wall Street-like trading environment, buying power from producers to selling to utilities, taking a cut each time. The more transactions, especially those at a higher price, the better for Enron.

”Every trading company in the country has been feasting on California, and Enron is the shrewdest of them all. They are like sharks in a feeding frenzy,” said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network in San Diego in 2001. As he said that, Enron president Jeffery Skilling and family were spending two weeks sailing in the Virgin Islands. Skilling was deeply offended Californians were angry at Enron, which he called one of the great examples of the benefits of deregulation.

”We’re on the side of angels,” Skilling told Bloomberg News at the time. ”We’re taking on the entrenched monopolies. In every business we’ve been in, we’re the good guys.”

Today, Skilling is serving a reduced sentence of 14 years at the Montgomery Federal Prison Camp, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala., and owes a $45 million fine.

Peevey never stopped advocating for deregulation, and his promise it would save Californians millions instead cost utility companies and the state tens of billions in losses. At the height of Enron’s market manipulation, Californians suffered multiple rolling blackouts while the energy markets made fortunes.

“This was like the perfect storm,” said former EES executive Steve Barth. “First, our traders are able to buy power for $250 in California and sell it to Arizona for $1,200 and then resell it to California for five times that. Then EES was able to go to these large companies and say ‘sign a 10-year contract with us and we’ll save you millions.'”

In a desperate bid to end the blackouts, utilities were eventually paying $1,400 per megawatt-hour for energy they used to produce for themselves for around $45.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ABC Nightline California Energy Crisis 1-2001.mp4

In 2000-2001, California was embroiled in an energy crisis, with rolling blackouts and enormous wholesale rate increases. At the heart of the problem – deregulation, which forced utilities to divest energy production assets and buy and sell power in a “free market” dominated by energy traders like Enron. ABC’s Nightline reported on the crisis in 2001, largely accepting the industry’s premise that the problem was insufficient supply and increased demand.

Vice President Dick Cheney blamed prior administrations for the crisis and believed more deregulation across the country would solve the problem, adding “there has been no significant increase in supply in California for about 10 years, although there’s been a 24 percent increase in the demand for electricity.”

These reports came ten months before the fall of Enron. Investigations would later reveal Cheney was wrong. Deregulation and a lack of oversight allowed Enron to manipulate prices undetected by federal regulators charged with monitoring the energy market. At the height of the crisis, Enron was exporting California-produced power to adjacent states, only to sell it back to increasingly desperate utilities like SCE and PG&E at markups that cost California $1-2 million a day. Despite claims the crisis was caused by a lack of capacity, at the height of the blackouts California had an installed generating capacity of 45GW and faced customer demand of just 28GW. (8:00)

Peevey Wins Presidency of CPUC and Has New Allies in Effort to Help AT&T, Power Companies

Peevey escaped the scorn heaped on energy companies and utilities because he cashed out of NEV just prior to the start of the Energy Crisis. Davis thought putting a former industry guy like Peevey in charge of the CPUC would be an asset because he would understood how legacy utilities like PG&E and SCE worked and would know how the new competitive players operated from his experience at NEV. Davis had previously brought Peevey on board as an unpaid personal consultant, helping him navigate the state’s energy crisis. By March, 2002 he was appointed by the governor to be a CPUC commissioner.

In late December it became clear Loretta Lynch was being forced out and Peevey was in. Davis reappointed Peevey to a full six-year term and designated him president, which pays $117,818 a year. Lynch remained at the CPUC as a commissioner until her term expired.

Gov. Gray Davis lost his job in a recall election, partly fueled by the California Energy Crisis.

Gov. Gray Davis lost his job in a recall election, partly fueled by the California Energy Crisis.

To further empower Peevey, Davis also appointed his own trusted cabinet secretary, Susan P. Kennedy, to a vacant seat on the commission. Kennedy was closely connected with the California Democratic Party. She was its executive director from 1991 to 1994, then served as communications director for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco from 1995 to 1998 before taking her post with Davis in 1999.

“Gov. Davis is cloning himself at the PUC to make sure he can get whatever he wants out of that agency,” complained Douglas Heller of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights Commission.

Both Kennedy and Peevey were regularly accused by consumer groups of turning the CPUC into an advocacy arm of some of the state’s largest utilities, usually at the expense of California’s consumers. When Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) got itself into trouble over safety breaches or regulatory violations, Peevey helped run defense and lessened the pain for the utility. Time for a rate increase? Peevey had the utilities’ backs.

Kennedy spent much of her three years at the CPUC (2003-2006) defending the interests of AT&T, the state’s largest telephone company. She helped head off efforts to enforce new consumer protection initiatives, watered down a cellular consumer’s “bill of rights” that would have disadvantaged AT&T and advocated for rate deregulation under the guise of competition. She was given prominent mention and support by the Koch Brothers-funded Heartland Institute after she was suddenly appointed chief of staff to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in December 2005:

Susan Kennedy’s policy positions at the CPUC, on the other hand, were as free-market as one could hope for in California, and there’s no sign she’s giving up on reform. This should delight the technology industry and benefit consumers everywhere. Republicans horrified by Kennedy’s appointment might check their own commitment to reform, smaller government, and a strong business climate.

Consumer groups were glad to see Kennedy out of the CPUC. She resurfaced this year as a key player in the CPUC influence game, but more on her later in the series.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBS News Incriminating Enron Tapes 2004.flv

About three years after the fall of Enron, audio tapes of phone conversations between Enron’s west coast energy traders revealed illegal market manipulation of electricity rates that went undetected under Michael Peevey. Despite the CPUC’s considerable resources, it took Eric Christiansen, assistant general counsel to the municipally owned Snohomish County Public Utilities District in Washington state to fight for, obtain, and make public the infamous Enron tapes. CBS News summarized in 2004 how Enron traders used California energy deregulation to their advantage, right under the noses of regulators. (3:38)

The Beginning of the End for Michael Peevey

The San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.

The San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.

The beginning of the end of Peevey’s reign over the CPUC began at 6:11 pm on September 9, 2010, in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, when a 30-inch diameter PG&E natural gas pipeline exploded in the middle of the Crestmoor residential neighborhood. The explosion and resulting fire was so enormous, first responders and the news media initially misreported it as a commercial jet crash. When it was all over, eight people were dead, 35 homes were leveled to the ground, and many others were damaged or uninhabitable.

Ironically, among the victims was Jacqueline Greig, 44. Greig worked for the CPUC, in a small, almost forgotten unit that advocates gas safety issues on behalf of consumers. Part of her job was reviewing PG&E’s plans to replace outdated natural gas pipelines like the one that exploded that early fall evening.

PG&E was implicated in the disaster, accused of operational deficiencies and reckless ignorance of public safety. In January, 2012, an independent audit from the State of California reported PG&E had also illegally diverted over $100 million from a safety operations fund for executive compensation and bonuses.

The federal investigation also accused the CPUC of not doing its job.

The National Transportation Safety Board found the CPUC “placed a blind trust in operators, to the detriment of public safety.”

Over 70 lawsuits were filed after the disaster, and critics accused the CPUC of being de facto members of PG&E’s defense team.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV San Francisco San Bruno Mayor Verbally Attacked by Peevey 9-10-13.flv

On the occasion of the third anniversary of the San Bruno explosion, CPUC president Michael Peevey allegedly verbally abused San Bruno’s mayor and city manager during a private meeting, upset that they used the CPUC offices as a backdrop for several press conferences critical of PG&E and how the CPUC enforced safety regulations. KNTV in San Francisco talked with San Bruno leaders who revealed what was said. Originally aired Sept. 10, 2013. (4:40)

In October 2012, a potentially embarrassing public hearing on the San Bruno pipeline blast to be held by the CPUC was suddenly suspended in favor of backroom negotiations to settle the case. Two months later, the CPUC decided Californians themselves should pay 55% of PG&E’s costs to inspect and upgrade suspect natural gas pipelines — estimated at $229 million.

After successfully getting ratepayers to cover most of the costs for PG&E’s mistakes, executives at the utility quickly pivoted to limiting the potential damage from anticipated fines yet to be levied by the CPUC over the San Bruno disaster. In September, 2014 PG&E learned it was facing an amount that could reach $1.4 billion. PG&E officials quickly called Peevey’s chief of staff – Carol Brown – to get her help moving San Bruno-related litigation to an administrative judge with a track record of being friendly to PG&E, with the hope the fines could be reduced or dropped.

That PG&E would reach out to regulators to discuss matters before the commission was not unusual, although it was improper. Utility executives knew they had plenty of opportunities to discuss whatever was on their mind with Peevey.

Image courtesy: KGO

Image courtesy: KGO

The fringe benefits of Peevey’s position seemed to go far beyond the responsibility of a utilities regulator earning a low six-figure salary. Peevey’s travels abroad were far beyond what most state regulators would consider reasonable. Peevey’s financial disclosures revealed he received gifts of $230,000 in international travel since he was appointed president of the CPUC in 2003. In all, Peevey spent 206 days abroad in at least 13 countries. On those trips, he was regularly joined by executives and lobbyists from some of the same companies that have business before the CPUC.

To avoid charges of a direct link between lobbyists and the CPUC president, special interests funneled money into a less obvious non-profit group called the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE). Ostensibly created to help the state move beyond fossil fuels and promote energy efficiency, the group also helps executives and lobbyists move closer to lawmakers and regulators. CFEE plans regular junkets to some of the best vacation spots on the planet, where it holds “conferences” and tours energy-conservation and environmentally friendly projects that happen to be within driving distance.

These were must-attend events for Peevey, who regularly skipped CPUC business, hearings run by the state legislature, and other important events so he wouldn’t miss a flight abroad or a quick drive to an expensive Napa Valley resort.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV Peevey Priority Senate Hearing or Napa Winery 5-2-13.flv

In a hidden camera investigation, KNTV found California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Peevey at a conference in wine country instead of answering tough questions from senators in Sacramento. Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski caught up with an irritated Peevey in Napa. This story originally aired on May 2, 2013. (5:37)

While the state remained preoccupied with the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, Peevey was packing for a flight to Madrid for a 12-day “travel-study excursion” that happened to hit the must-see stops in Sevilla and Barcelona, again sponsored by CFEE. Along for the ride was Peevey’s wife, two other state senators, several members of the state Assembly, CPUC commissioner Nancy Ryan, and executives from Chevron, Mirant (now GenOn, the owner of the Potrero power plant), Covanta Energy Corporation, Shell Energy North America, and engineering giant AECOM. PG&E and SCE executives were also in attendance, with plenty of time for fun and chats about the current priorities of the corporate utility business.

KNTV's Investigate Reporting unit has dogged Peevey for more than a year about alleged improprieties.

KNTV’s Investigate Reporting unit has dogged Peevey for more than a year about alleged improprieties. (Image: KNTV)

There isn’t much to see at CFEE headquarters at Pier 35 in San Francisco. Most of the activity takes place behind the scenes, where a long list of corporate members cut checks to CFEE to cover travel expenses for public officials. Among them include Verizon, Time Warner Cable, the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, Comcast, Chevron, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, AT&T, and PG&E. In return, executives often get to tag along on the exclusive junkets.

Although a rare trip to the less exclusive land of Inner Mongolia was a part of CFEE’s list of “travel studies” back in 2001, in recent years the destinations resemble the grand prize on a TV game show. Italy, Brazil, South Africa, Sweden and other destinations are covered, and you can be sure the guests are put up only in the finest hotels available.

“These ostensibly educational trips are essentially lobbying junkets, where utilities … wine and dine legislators,” said consumer group TURN spokeperson Mindy Spatt. The San Francisco Bay Guardian reported in 2011 TURN was raising the issue of these corporate-sponsored junkets several years ago when Peevey joined a CFEE trip attended by a representative of Southern California Edison “just coincidentally at the exact same time that he was penning an alternate decision in Edison’s rate case.” She added: “In TURN’s perspective, the commissioners need to be more in touch with what actual utility customers are experiencing, rather than in touch with the top restaurants in Brazil.”

In April 2013, CFEE paid the price for not keeping all their junkets far out of reach of the California media. KNTV, the NBC affiliate in San Francisco, followed Peevey to an exclusive Napa resort and a private reception at an upscale winery in St. Helena, all captured on hidden camera by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit.

Peevey was supposed to appear that day before the California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review subcommittee to discuss his performance after growing revelations showed a conflict of interest between the CPUC and the utilities it regulates. Peevey skipped the hearing and attended the corporate-funded tour instead. His only obligation was to deliver a five-minute speech at the event. The rest of the time was his to hobnob.

The affair got underway at noon with a catered lunch for guests, including a representative from PG&E. More than two dozen Sacramento lawmakers also had ID badges waiting for them on arrival. By early evening, Peevey was on board a luxury tour bus driving through Napa Valley to reach St. Helena’s exclusive Merryvale winery, which was closed to the public that day to keep the curious away. That event lasted more than three hours and included 100 guests — a small number of lawmakers and regulators outnumbered by corporate lobbyists.

Peevey was less than happy to be ambushed by KNTV reporter Tony Kovaleski in the Merryvale parking lot at the end of the evening. Part of the exchange:

Merryvale: Closed to public scrutiny.

Merryvale: Closed to public scrutiny.

Kovaleski: What is the message you sent by coming here to Napa instead of going to speak to the senate?

Peevey: You are very antagonistic you know. You are reading a script.

Kovaleski: Sir, I am not reading a script. I want to give you an opportunity to respond.

Peevey: But your questions are the wrong questions.

Kovaleski: You spent time here with the utilities you are paid to regulate.

Peevey: There’s no utilities here that I know of.

Kovaleski: PG&E was here. We saw them on the list.

Peevey: Oh, there may have been one person, I don’t know. […] You poor son of a b****. You have a job to do. It’s pathetic what you are doing. It’s pathetic.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV San Francisco Flown Wined and Dined on Lobbyists Dimes 7-31-13.flv

In California it’s perfectly legal, but does that make it right? KNTV in San Francisco examines the ongoing free travel CPUC president Michael Peevey has accepted from nonprofits and special interest groups. Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski asks, are the trips simply gifts? Or are the gestures buying access to one of the most powerful people in California? This story aired on July 30, 2013. (6:58)

Although Peevey managed to withstand repeated questions about his travel habits and remained president of the commission during the tenure of current Gov. Jerry Brown, he had a lot harder time explaining away disclosed e-mails showing an even closer working relationship between himself and PG&E executives than anyone could have imagined.

65,000 Cringe-Worthy E-Mails Show Peevey as “a Micromanaging, Domineering Leader Who Appears to Have Overstepped His Role.”

cherryA Los Angeles Times story characterized the 65,000 released emails as presenting a “damaging portrait of former PUC President Michael Peevey as a micromanaging, domineering leader who appears to have overstepped his role. Peevey involved himself personally in internal decision-making at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. — the state’s largest utility — including its corporate leadership, political public relations strategy, safety policies and rate-setting cases, affecting billions of customer dollars, documents show.”

San Bruno city manager Connie Jackson was more concise: “I think we need to characterize it as collusion.”

“The bottom line is that I am amazed,” said Robert McCullough, an energy industry consultant and a former longtime manager at Portland General Electric in Oregon, who has analyzed thousands of the emails. “Peevey has passed beyond” improper contacts with PG&E, McCullough told the Times, and took on a “role where he was commenting and recommending promotions at PG&E. In effect, he was acting as a member of senior management” and “had clearly redefined the role of CPUC commissioner into a freewheeling advocate for the firm.”

Some of the most damaging emails involve PG&E vice president Brian Cherry, his immediate boss, and Peevey. Multiple emails show more than a passing interest on Peevey’s part on the management and business policies of PG&E. In one exchange, Peevey sought to arrange a quiet meeting with him and PG&E CEO Peter Darbee at Jardiniere, a French restaurant in San Francisco. On the agenda was the effectiveness of Darbee’s leadership of PG&E. It was seven months after the San Bruno pipeline exploded and San Bruno city officials were still blistering PG&E and others over the explosion and its cause.

Peevey seemed to think he played a role in the sudden decision Darbee took to retire just a few weeks later. In a follow-up email to Cherry, Peevey took some credit for the leadership change.

“The board did the right thing (with a little nudge) this morning,” Peevey wrote. “Maybe the beginning of a new, better leaf.”

Another email concerned a list of tentative personnel promotions at PG&E. Peevey wanted and got a copy of the list and then later replied he was thankful PG&E ran the names of the candidates “by me.”

To help keep an industry-friendly CPUC intact, Peevey privately e-mailed Cherry with tactical advice about how PG&E could effectively lobby Gov. Brown about forthcoming commission appointments.

pgeBut Peevey was also willing to use his connection with Cherry to shakedown PG&E for money for his non-profit group and to fight a ballot initiative he didn’t like.

Peevey leaned on Cherry in one email to donate at least $1 million to help fight a measure that would have suspended a California law limiting greenhouse gas emissions. PG&E gave half that, but probably could have saved its money because California voters shot down the measure by themselves in November 2010.

Peevey also wanted a $100,000 contribution from PG&E to throw a 100th anniversary celebration party for the CPUC. Peevey suggested a check on his desk would go a long way as commissioners pondered a PG&E rate hike request already before the commission. After all, Edison and AT&T had already confirmed they will contribute.

cpucCherry understood what was expected, and wrote his boss, “I told him I got the message.” PG&E also got a table… for $20,000.

“This is nothing less than quid pro quo deal-making with ratepayer dollars,” said Tom Long, an attorney with the The Utility Reform Network. “I honestly have never seen such smoking-gun evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the commission.”

Peevey wasn’t only friendly to giant power utilities. Under his leadership, the CPUC gave AT&T wide latitude and broad deregulation over its cable television and telephone business. The commission has also granted cable system ownership transfers with a virtual rubber stamp, and customers complain the CPUC has an uncanny knack of taking the provider’s side in consumer complaints.

The revelations lead to a scathing editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Peevey’s arrogance and sense of infallibility led him to conclude that rules were for other people. He didn’t just cross the lines of propriety in his dealings with utilities; he obliterated them. No one will be surprised if state and federal investigators find more scandals in coming weeks and months. Abuse of power is likely to be habitual when powerful people think they’re above the law.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV San Francisco E-Mail Scandal at PSC 11-12-14.flv

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has discovered that CPUC president Michael Peevey failed to file the state-required disclosure form detailing successful requests for money from PG&E. KNTV takes a look at the e-mails exchanged between Peevey and top executives at PG&E. The Fair Political Practices Commission has joined the U.S. Attorney and the California Attorney General in investigating Peevey. Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski reports in a story that aired on November 12, 2014. (6:37)

Everyone Wants to Be a PG&E Helper

Peevey was clearly not the only point of contact PG&E had with the CPUC. Released emails show a series of messages between Cherry and Peevey’s chief of staff, Carol Brown. It quickly becomes clear Brown was looking out more for the interests of PG&E than California ratepayers.

Brown

Brown

Brown told Cherry she would help him whenever possible, and that included advice on how a top PG&E official could effectively obfuscate in a response to an open “public request for information.”

Losing complaints or giving inaccurate answers to consumer inquiries that help steer consumers away from pestering energy and telecom companies appears to be business as usual at the CPUC. An April report from the California State Auditor found the CPUC routinely misclassify almost 40 percent of complaints they receive from the public, leaving the agency ill-equipped to properly address consumer grievances.

“In 17 of the 45 complaints we selected and reviewed for accuracy, we found that the branch did not correctly categorize the complaints,” auditors found. “As a result, the branch’s complaint data do not accurately reflect the complaints it receives, and the branch is providing users with inaccurate data.”

But even more damaging was Cherry’s need for Brown’s help to choose a friendly administrative law judge for a pending PG&E rate case. Cherry got his wish and it appeared PG&E’s $1.3 billion rate case was on its way to fast approval, at least until the email exchange went public and accusations of judge shopping emerged. The case has now been reassigned.

“I’m Not Here to Answer Your Goddamn Questions. Now Shut Up — Shut Up!”

Occasionally, Peevey’s domineering temper emerged in public and in May 2014, Mike Aguirre, former San Diego City Attorney got to see it on full display.

He appeared at a hearing representing a ratepayer who was upset about a proposed settlement between utility companies and consumer advocacy groups that required ratepayers to cover $3.3 billion of the $4.7 billion bill to decommission one of the state’s nuclear plants. Like many other disputes taken before the CPUC, this one was settled in a secret meeting.

Aguierre wanted Peevey to go on record that SCE, his former employer, did not have any contact with Peevey.

“I’m not here to answer your goddamn questions. Now shut up — shut up!” yelled Peevey in response.

Despite the slow motion public relations train wreck, Gov. Brown continued to stand by Peevey. Peevey stood by business as usual.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KGTV San Diego CPUC president curses out San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre 5-22-14.mp4

KGTV in San Diego covered a May 2014 hearing that deteriorated after a San Diego attorney asked Peevey some questions about a secret meeting held between the CPUC and Peevey’s former employer that left San Diego ratepayers holding the bag — paying the bulk of the costs to decommission one of the state’s nuclear power plants. Peevey let loose. (2:23)

The CPUC’s Non-Neutral Net Neutrality Hearings

Peevey stares down Commissioner Carla Peterman

Peevey stares down Commissioner Carla Peterman

In the telecom sector, the most visible evidence that backroom dealings were underway at the CPUC occurred during the debate on Net Neutrality. The most awkward moment for the CPUC was at a September 11, 2014 meeting dominated by discussions about the open Internet.

The very sparsely attended public meeting ran several hours before the CPUC finally decided to vote on a resolution urging the FCC to adopt strong Net Neutrality regulations and impose Title II reclassification of broadband as a common carrier public utility.

The uneventful vote began with “Yes” votes from Commissioners Carla Peterman, Mike Florio, and Catherine Sandoval. Peevey and Commissioner Michael Picker both voted “No” and it would seem to the half-dazed audience soaking in an afternoon of arcane procedural matters that there was a clear 3-2 vote in favor of strong Net Neutrality.

But then something curious happened. Peevey declared, “That’s what’s adopted. All the other pieces go with that. There is no need for any other vote on any other matters.” It all seemed jovial enough until Peevey leaned to his right and stared down Peterman, adding, “unless anyone wants to reconsider their vote… rather quickly.”

Peterman seemed to think the chairman was joking and quickly declared, “No,” suggesting she was completely satisfied with her vote and the meeting plodded on.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CPUC Net Neutrality Hearing Vote 9-11-14.flv

The CPUC seemed to be holding a routine vote on a resolution supporting strong Net Neutrality, including reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II. But moments after the 9/11/14 vote, Peevey seemed to jovially stare down a commissioner who appeared to vote in a way he didn’t approve or expect. (2:32)

At the end of the agenda, just when the audience was certain the meeting was coming to an end, Peevey suddenly called for a five-minute “rest break.” Observers suggested that was odd because with no more business before the commission, calling the proceeding to a close seemed like a more logical idea. The five-minute break stretched into 10, 15, and eventually more than 20 minutes. As Peevey reconvened the meeting, he immediately prompted Peterman to her microphone.

Peterman

Peterman

“I want to ask Carla, commissioner Peterman, to say something here,” Peevey said.

For several minutes, Peterman verbally stumbled her way trying to backtrack her earlier strong support for Net Neutrality, now seeking to abstain from the vote altogether. Peevey’s tenor suggested he well understood Peterman’s intentions in advance and helped shepherd a new vote past the commission’s legal advisers.

Peterman seemed to suggest that because the commission was closely divided on the matter, more time should be taken to develop a statement of unanimity that all five commissioners could agree on. But the end effect of a 2-2 vote with one abstention would leave a final statement advocating Net Neutrality under Title II in the gutter.

Peterman, Peevey, and the commission’s legal advisers tried to navigate through the confusing vote changing procedure for several minutes. Commissioner Sandoval spoke up to make sure that statements of unanimity were not a new precedent at the commission, but seemed to resign herself that it would be the case for this particular resolution.

To any observer, it seemed clear Peterman was strongly lobbied during the “five-minute break” to change her vote, perhaps by telecom lobbyists or by Peevey himself. The end effect was neutralizing the state of California’s participation in the Net Neutrality debate with a virtual abstention. Although Peevey promised to return to the matter of Net Neutality two weeks after the Sept. 11 meeting, Peterman, who initially seemed concerned about moving forward with the discussion, later asked it be postponed for an extra two weeks. On Oct. 16, it was abruptly dropped from the meeting agenda altogether.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CPUC Net Neutrality Hearing Vote Change 9-11-14.flv

After nearly three hours of the hearing had passed, watch as Peevey declares a five-minute “rest break” that stretched beyond 20 minutes. When the commission reconvened, Commissioner Peterman suddenly wanted to change her vote, neutering the resolution the commission voted to support an hour earlier in support of Net Neutrality. Despite Peterman’s claims of urgency regarding the issue of Net Neutrality, Peevey dropped the issue from the agenda a month later. (11:30)

Tracy Rosenberg, the executive director of Oakland-based Media Alliance, complained that the CPUC ignored more than 3,000 Californians that wrote comments to the CPUC about Net Neutrality.

“What’s going on here, folks?” Rosenberg asked.

“I got it,” came a terse response from Peevey, who offered no other comment.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CPUC Tracy Rosenberg Media Alliance Comments on Net Neutrality 10-16-14.flv

Tracy Rosenberg from Media Alliance rose to protest the CPUC’s sudden drop of Net Neutrality from the agenda. Peevey dismissed her remarks, saying “got it” before quickly moving on to another speaker. (2:17)

Out With the Old, In With the New, But the Same Lobbyists Are Still There

In October 2014, Peevey relieved the governor from being pushed to take action to finally get rid of him. Peevey read a brief statement announcing he was headed for retirement.

“I will not seek reappointment to the CPUC when my term expires at the end of the year,” Peevey said. “Twelve years as president is enough.”

It was more than enough for San Bruno mayor Jim Ruane who said he was “extremely happy” Peevey was leaving. “It’s a tremendous victory, not just for the City of San Bruno, but for all citizens in the State of California. Under Peevey’s leadership, the CPUC has served as a pawn of state utilities and an agency marked by collusion, dysfunction and, we learned this week, possible corruption.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV San Francisco Michael Peevey Last Day at CPUC 12-18-14.flv

He’s going. Colleagues compared Michael Peevey to President Franklin Roosevelt and the Pope in their farewell addresses to the longest-serving CPUC president in agency history. Detractors thought he could get away with anything. KNTV continues its series about the California Public Utilities Commission in a story that aired on Dec. 18, 2014. (4:20)

Today, Peevey is out of office, replaced by former commissioner-turned-president Michael Picker. But that may prove to be a distinction without much difference, according to a series of revelations published in the San Diego Union-Tribune that suggest Picker is being groomed by the same industry lobbyists that surrounded Peevey. More details about that and where the CPUC is headed next coming in the next part of our series.

FCC’s Tom Wheeler Falls in Line Behind President Obama’s Strong Net Neutrality Agenda

Wheeler

Wheeler

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has foreshadowed his revised plan for Net Neutrality will include reclassification of broadband as a utility, allowing the agency to better withstand future legal challenges as it increases its oversight of the Internet.

Tom Wheeler’s latest comments came during this week’s consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. Wheeler stressed he supports reclassification of broadband, away from its current definition as an “information service” subject to Section 706 of the Telecom Act of 1996 (all two broadly written paragraphs of it) towards a traditional “telecommunications service.” Under the Communications Act of 1934, that would place broadband under Title II of the FCC’s mandate. Although at least 100 pages long, Title II has stood the test of time and has withstood corporate lawsuits and challenges for decades.

Section 706 relies almost entirely on competition to resolve disputes by allowing the marketplace to solve problems. The 1996 Telecom Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, sought to promote competition and end “barriers to infrastructure investment.” Broadly written with few specifics, large telecom companies have successfully argued in court that nothing in Section 706 gives the FCC the right to interfere with the marketing and development of their Internet services, including the hotly disputed issues of usage caps, speed throttling, and the fight against paid fast lanes and Internet traffic toll booths. In fact, the industry has argued increased involvement by the FCC runs contrary to the goals of Section 706 by deterring private investment.

An executive summary of a report published on the industry-funded Internet Innovation Alliance website wastes no time making that connection, stating it in the first paragraph:

Net neutrality has the potential to distort the parameters built into operator business cases in such a way as to increase the expected risk. And because it distorts the operator investment business decision, net neutrality has the potential to significantly discourage infrastructure investment. This is due to the fact that investments in infrastructure are highly sensitive to expected subscriber revenue. Anything that reduces the expectation of such revenue streams can either delay or curtail such investments.

netneutralityUnfortunately for consumers, even the chairman of the FCC concedes the broadband marketplace isn’t exactly teeming with the kind of competition Section 706 envisioned to keep the marketplace in check. In fact, Wheeler suggested most Americans live with a broadband duopoly, and often a monopoly when buying Internet access at speeds of 25Mbps or greater. Further industry consolidation is already underway, which further deters new competitors from entering the market.

Net Neutrality critics, the broadband industry, and their allies on Capitol Hill have argued that adopting Title II rules for broadband will saddle ISPs with at least one hundred pages of rules originally written to manage the landline telephone monopoly of the 1930s. Title II allows the FCC to force providers to charge “just and reasonable rates” which they believe opens the door to rate regulation. It also broadly requires providers to act “in the public interest” and unambiguously prohibits companies from making “any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.”

Both Comcast and Verizon have challenged the FCC’s authority to regulate Internet services using Section 706, and twice the courts have ruled largely in favor of the cable and phone company. Judges have no problem permitting the FCC to enforce policies that encourage competition, which has allowed the FCC some room to insist that whatever providers choose to charge customers or what they do to manage Internet traffic must be fully disclosed. The court in the Verizon case also suggested the FCC has the authority to oversee the relationship between ISPs and content providers also within a framework of promoting competition.

DC Circuit Court

DC Circuit Court

But when the FCC sought to enforce specific policies governing Internet traffic using Section 706, they lost their case in court.

Although Net Neutrality critics contend the FCC has plenty of authority to enforce Net Neutrality under Section 706, in reality the FCC’s hands are tied as soon as they attempt to implement anti-blocking and anti-traffic discrimination rules.

The court found that the FCC cannot impose new rules under Section 706 that are covered by other provisions of the Communications Act.

So what does that mean, exactly?

Michael Powell, former FCC chairman, is now the chief lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. (Photo courtesy: NCTA)

Michael Powell, former FCC chairman, is now the chief lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. (Photo courtesy: NCTA)

In 2002, former FCC chairman Michael Powell (who serves today as the cable industry’s chief lobbyist) presided over the agency’s decision to classify broadband not as a telecommunications service but an “information service provider” subject to Title I oversight. Whether he realized it or not, that decision meant broadband providers would be exempt from common carrier obligations as long as they remained subject to Title I rules.

When the FCC sought to write rules requiring ISPs not block, slow or discriminate against certain Internet traffic, the court ruled they overstepped into “common carrier”-style regulations like those that originally prohibited phone companies from blocking phone calls or preventing another phone company from connecting calls to and from AT&T’s network.

If the FCC wanted to enforce rules that mimic “common carrier” regulations, the court ruled the FCC needed to demonstrate it had the regulatory authority or risk further embarrassing defeats in the courtroom. The FCC’s transparency rules requiring ISPs to disclose their rates and network management policies survived Verizon’s court challenge because the court found that policy promoted competition and did not trespass on regulations written under Title II.

The writing on the wall could not be clearer: If you want Net Neutrality to survive inevitable court challenges, you need to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

Major ISPs won’t hear of it however and have launched an expensive media blitz claiming that reclassification would subject them to 100 pages of regulations written for the rotary dial era. Broadband, they say, would be regulated like a 1934 landline. Some have suggested the costs of complying with the new regulations would lead to significant rate increases as well. Many Republicans in Congress want the FCC to wait until they can introduce and pass a Net Neutrality policy of their own, one that will likely heavily tilt in favor of providers. Such a bill would likely face a presidential veto.

Suggestions the FCC would voluntarily not impose outdated or irrelevant sections of Title II on the broadband industry didn’t soothe providers or their supporters. Republican FCC commissioners are also cold to the concept of reclassification.

O'Rielly

O’Rielly

“Title II includes a host of arcane provisions,” said FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly in a meeting in May 2014. “The idea that the commission can magically impose or sprinkle just the right amount of Title II on broadband providers is giving the commission more credit than it ever deserves.”

Providers were cautiously optimistic in 2014 they could navigate around strong Net Neutrality enforcement with the help of their lobbyists and suggestions that an industry-regulator compromise was possible. Early indications that a watered-down version of Net Neutrality was on the way came after a trial balloon was floated by Wheeler last year. Under his original concept, paid fast lanes and other network management and traffic manipulation would be allowed if it did not create undue burdens on other Internet traffic.

Net activists loudly protested Wheeler’s vision of Net Neutrality was a sellout. Wheeler’s vision was permanently laid to rest after last November when President Barack Obama suddenly announced his support for strong and unambiguous Net Neutrality protections (and reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service), No FCC chairman would likely challenge policies directly advocated by the president that nominated him.

Obama spoke, Thomas Wheeler listened. Wheeler’s revised Net Neutrality plan is likely to arrive on the desks of his fellow commissioners no later than Feb. 5, scheduled for a vote on Feb. 26. It’s a safe bet the two Republicans will oppose the proposal and the three Democrats will support it. But chairman Wheeler also listens to Congress and made it clear he doesn’t have a problem deferring to them if they feel it necessary.

“Clearly, we’re going to come out with what I hope will be the gold standard,” Wheeler told the audience in Las Vegas. “If Congress wants to come in and then say, we want to make sure that this approach doesn’t get screwed up by some crazy chairman that comes in, [those are] legitimate issues.”

If that doesn’t work, the industry plans to take care of the Net Neutrality regulation problem itself. Hours after any Net Neutrality policy successfully gets approved, AT&T has promised to challenge it in court.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fox Business News Net Neutrality Wheeler 1-8-15.flv

Free Press CEO Craig Aaron appeared on Fox Business News to discuss Tom Wheeler’s evolving position on Net Neutrality. (3:54)

Internet Slowdown Day is Here: Tell the FCC to Classify ISPs as Common Carriers

Phillip "It's common sense" Dampier

Phillip “It’s common sense” Dampier

The concept is so simple one might think there was nothing controversial about the common sense idea of requiring Internet Service Providers to handle Internet traffic equally.

But that would throw a wrench into the money-making plans of some of America’s top cable and phone companies looking for new ways to collect more money and bigger profits from selling Internet access.

Wireless phone companies have already got the Money Party started, throttling certain traffic while exempting partnered apps and websites from counting against your monthly usage allowance. Americans pay some of the highest prices in the world for broadband service, but it is never enough for some executives who believe the increasing necessity of having Internet access means companies can charge even more for access. With few competitive alternatives, where are you going to go?

With most Americans confronted with just two Internet providers to choose from, the stage is set for mischief. The normal rules of competition simply don’t apply, allowing companies to raise prices while limiting innovation to finding new ways to improve revenue without improving the service. That has worked well for stockholders and executives that green-light these schemes, but for all the money Americans pay for service, broadband in the United States is still way behind other nations.

A few years ago, the CEO of AT&T decided that collecting money from customers to provide Internet access wasn’t enough. The company now wanted compensation from websites that generate the traffic ISPs handle for their customers. In other words, they wanted to be paid twice for doing their job.

If you listen to some of America’s largest cable and phone companies talk, you would think that traffic from Netflix and other high-volume websites was sucking them dry. But in fact their prices and profits are up and their costs are down… way down. But that doesn’t stop them from contemplating usage-based billing and reducing investment in upgrades to keep up with demand. Netflix learned that lesson when Comcast refused to upgrade some of its connections which left Netflix streaming video constantly buffering for Comcast customers. Those problems magically disappeared as soon as money changed hands in a deal that leaves Netflix dependent on paying Comcast protection money to make sure customers can actually enjoy the service they already paid to receive.

internetslowdownhero-100413741-large

Former FCC chairman Kevin Martin believed competition would keep ISPs honest, but since he left at the end of the Bush Administration, competition has barely emerged for most of us. Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman under President Obama’s first term gave some strong speeches about protecting Net Neutrality but caved to provider demands the moment he met with them behind closed doors. Today, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler presides over an agency that has repeatedly had its regulatory hat handed to them by the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has ruled time and time again that the current regulatory foundation on which Internet-related policies are enforced is completely unsound.

We can thank former FCC chairman Michael Powell for that. His decision to classify broadband as an “information service” during the first term of the Bush Administration carries almost no legacy of court-upheld authority the FCC can rely on to enforce its regulations. Powell’s innovation was warmly received by America’s biggest cable companies who quickly realized the FCC had regulatory authority over the broadband business in name-only. Powell’s reward? A cushy job as head of America’s biggest cable lobby – the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

Don't allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Don’t allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Wheeler used to hold that position himself, and his trip through D.C.’s revolving door connecting regulators with the regulated makes it unsurprising that Wheeler’s own Net Neutrality proposal is not far from what Big Telecom companies want themselves — permission to create paid “fast lanes” on highways that currently lack enough capacity to protect other traffic from suffering the speed consequences of prioritized traffic.

It reminds me of those highway projects where cars dutifully change lanes well in advance of lane closures while other cars blow past only to merge at the last possible minute, saving them time while slowing cars behind them to a crawl as they wait to move ahead.

Make no mistake – paid fast lanes will compromise unpaid traffic, reducing the quality of your Internet experience.

The best solution to this problem would be for providers to devote more revenue to regular network upgrades that benefit everyone, not create new ways to ration the Internet for some while letting others pay to avoid speed bumps and congestion issues that are easy and inexpensive to solve. But if your provider was already delivering that kind of capacity, there would be no market for Internet fast lanes, would there? Without Net Neutrality, providers have a financial incentive not to upgrade their networks and have little fear unhappy customers will switch to the other competitor likely trying the same thing.

Net Neutrality cannot just be a policy, however. A strong regulatory foundation must exist to allow the FCC to enforce Internet-related policies without having them overturned by the courts. That means one thing: reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations.

Net Neutrality opponents like to claim that would saddle Internet providers with decades old telephone regulations that have nothing to do with today’s broadband marketplace. But in fact that regulatory framework was originally established precisely for the reasons we need it again today — a non-competitive, largely unregulated marketplace is exploiting its market power to abuse customers and artificially interfere with traffic just to invent new ways to make more money.

People forget that in the 1920s, AT&T not only monopolized telephone service in most areas (and had a history of refusing to connect calls made from competing telephone companies to its own subscribers even as it hiked rates to pay for “improvements”), it was also attempting to force its for-profit vision on the newly emerging world of radio: “toll-broadcasting.” AT&T insisted that radio stations charge a fee to anyone who wanted access to the airwaves, and imposed the toll system on its own stations, starting with WBAY-AM (later WEAF) in New York on July 25, 1922.

Westinghouse, GE, RCA, and AT&T maintained such strong control over broadcasting and telecommunications in the 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission eventually filed a formal complaint with Congress declaring the four had “combined and conspired for the purpose of, and with the effect of, restraining competition and creating a monopoly in the manufacture, purchase and sale in interstate commerce of radio devices…and in domestic and transoceanic communication and broadcasting.”

It took the Justice Department to finally force a resolution to protect competition and the free exchange of ideas on the airwaves with a 1930 antitrust lawsuit against the four companies. In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act establishing the FCC as the national regulator in charge of protecting some of the values that monopolies tend to trample.

The thing about history is that those who ignore it are bound to repeat it. Whether we are dealing with railroad robber barons, a Bell System monopoly, or barely competitive cable and phone companies, if the conditions are right to exploit customers on behalf of shareholders looking for bigger returns, companies will follow through. In the first two cases, with little chance that natural competition would bring a solution in a reasonable amount of time, regulators stepped in to restore some balance in the marketplace and protect consumers from runaway abuses. That has to happen again.

  • First, reclassify broadband as a common carrier under Title 2;
  • Second, enact strong Net Neutrality protections under that authority.

And don’t you believe that old chestnut that sensible regulatory policies will impede investment in telecommunications. Other nations that have much better broadband than we enjoy (at lower prices) already have reasonable regulatory protections in place that promote and protect competition instead of protecting incumbent market power and impeding would-be competitors. Investment in upgrades continues to pour in, further widening the gap between the kind of service we receive and what customers in other countries get for a lot less money.

The deadline for FCC comments on Net Neutrality is Sept. 15. Sending one directly is simple, effective, and will take less than five minutes.

  1. Visit fcc.gov/comments
  2. Click on the proceeding 14-28 (usually in the top three)
  3. Complete the form and type your comments in the big box. Tell the FCC you want broadband reclassified as a common carrier under Title II as a telecommunications service and that you want strong Net Neutrality policies enacted that forbid paid fast lanes and provider interference in your Internet experience.
  4. Submit the form and you are finished.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Democracy Now Internet Slowdown 9-10-14.mp4

If your favorite website seems to load slowly today, take a closer look: You might be experiencing the Battle for the Net’s “Internet Slowdown,” a global day of action. The Internet won’t actually be slowing down, but many sites are placing on their homepages animated “Loading” graphics , which organizers call “the proverbial ‘spinning wheel of death,’ to symbolize what the Internet might soon look like.

Large Internet service providers, or ISPs, like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon, are trying to change the rules that govern the Internet. Some of the biggest companies on the Internet — Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Etsy and WordPress — are joining today’s Internet Slowdown to draw attention to Net Neutrality, the principle that service providers shouldn’t be allowed to speed up, or slow down, loading times on certain websites, such as their competitors.

This comes as 27 online advocacy groups sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler Tuesday, calling on him to take part in town hall-style public hearings on Net Neutrality before ruling on the issue as early as this year. Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman talks with Tim Karr from the group Free Press, one of the main organizers of the Internet Slowdown global day of action. (7:15)

FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

4. Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,'” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

52 Mayors Pledge Allegiance to Comcast’s Merger Deal; Is Yours on the List?

mayorsMore than 50 mayors of towns and cities large and small regurgitated Comcast-provided talking points in a joint letter submitted to the FCC in support of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger:

The combination of these two American companies will bring benefits to every affected city. Cities joining the Comcast service area will benefit from increased network investment, faster Internet speeds, improved video options and leading community development programs to help us tackle important community challenges like the digital divide. Existing Comcast markets will enjoy the benefits of a company with the scale and scope to invest in innovation and deliver products and services on a regional basis.

For us, the most significant aspect of the proposed transaction is its capacity to propel new investment in infrastructure in Time Warner markets that will enhance video and Internet service in our communities. Comcast has pledged to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year speeding up and improving the combined company’s networks.

We also view positively the apparent response to this development from other companies that provide similar services. Since the Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction was proposed, Google has announced plans to expand its high-speed Fiber service to 34 new communities, AT&T has announced plans to expand its 1 gigabit U-Verse service to 100 new municipalities including 21 large cities, and Sprint’s corporate parent has proposed to build a 200 Mbps wireless network for the US.

In addition to being terribly misleading, parts of the letter are factually inaccurate. The letter’s text was taken almost entirely from Comcast’s own talking points released to the media and disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown 2012: Time Warner Cable is naughty. 2014: Time Warner Cable is nice.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown
2012: Time Warner Cable is naughty.
2014: Time Warner Cable is nice.

Remarkably, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown managed a complete flip-flop on his views of Time Warner Cable. In 2012, he co-signed a letter accusing Comcast and Time Warner Cable of anticompetitive behavior, runaway rate increases, and a growing digital divide. He was speaking about Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s  decision to partner with Verizon Wireless to jointly market products to their customers:

“We are deeply worried that the anti-competitive partnership between Verizon Wireless, the nation’s largest wireless provider, and four of the leading cable companies will have a negative impact on economic development and job creation in our cities, leading to higher prices, fewer service options, and a growing digital divide, “ the letter reads. “As you review the Verizon Wireless/cable transaction, we strongly urge you to examine the impact of this transaction on competition and consumer choice, and ensure that our communities are not left behind.”

This year, despite the fact both Comcast and Time Warner Cable still have their cross-marketing agreement with Verizon and both cable operators have raised prices, Brown joined the other mayors heaping praise on both cable companies:

Time Warner Cable has been a responsible corporate citizen whose efforts will only be enhanced by joining forces with Comcast’s community investment programs. Comcast has established itself as an industry leader and exemplary community partner who invests in its local communities and works hand in hand with local governments on critical social challenges like the digital divide.

Except when it is not.

Matthew Keys, who comments on journalism and social media, notes the Comcast merger has little to do with broadband expansion at other companies:

But the mayors failed to note that Sprint’s pledge of a faster wireless data network was predicated on a merger with rival T-Mobile, which fell through earlier this month. In addition, AT&T’s 1-Gigabit Internet service is likely being offered as an incentive for the FCC to approve its own proposed merger with Comcast competitor DirecTV; the Internet service is offered to residents in a handful of cities at a whopping $100 a month, nearly triple what the company sells it’s basic broadband Internet service for. And while the mayors assert that Google is expanding its Fiber service to more than 30 areas, they fail to note that Google is in preliminary talks with those communities and that the rollout may never happen.

If any providers inspired a broadband speed Renaissance, it was Google Fiber and a handful of gigabit community-owned fiber networks like EPB in Chattanooga, all demonstrating fast speeds and affordable pricing can go hand in hand when your primary interest is serving customers, not shoveling money at shareholders.

Customers who happen to live in the cities below might want to fill the email boxes and melt down the phone lines of these mayors who have demonstrated a willingness to throw their constituents under the bus (Matthew Keys did an exceptional job collecting their contact information).

Feel free to share our fact-based testimony with the mayors and let them know you don’t appreciate the fact they are spending taxpayer time and money advocating for a multi-billion dollar cable merger the majority of Americans oppose. Then remind them if this merger succeeds, you will think of them every time you have a problem with your cable service, when your bill increases, and when you discover Comcast has rationed your use of the Internet with a compulsory usage allowance. Because these problems always come fast and furious with Comcast, let them know you will have no trouble recalling their role in bringing Comcast to town when you go and vote.

Mayor Name
City
State
E-mail
Phone Number
William Bell Birmingham Alabama [email protected] (205) 254-2283
Tom Tait Anaheim California [email protected] (714) 765-5247
Kathleen DeRosa Cathedral City California [email protected] (760) 770-0340
Harry Price Fairfield California [email protected] (707) 428-7400
Acquanetta Warren Fontana California [email protected] (909) 350-7600
Jeffrey Gee Redwood City California [email protected] (650) 780-7597
Steve Hogan Aurora Colorado [email protected] (303) 739-7015
Marc Williams Arvada Colorado [email protected] (303) 424-4486
Richard McLean Brighton Colorado [email protected] (303) 655-2266
Michael Hancock Denver Colorado [email protected] (303) 331-3872
Pedro Segarra Hartford Connecticut [email protected] (860) 757-9500
Cindy Lerner Pinecrest Florida [email protected] (305) 234-2121
Joy Cooper Hallandale Beach Florida [email protected] (954) 457-1318
Alvin Brown Jacksonville Florida [email protected] (904) 630-1776
George Vallejo N. Miami Beach Florida [email protected] (305) 948-2986
John Marks Tallahassee Florida [email protected] (850) 891-2000
Tomas Regalado Miami Florida [email protected] (305) 250-5300
Lori Moseley Miramar Florida [email protected] (954) 602-3142
Buddy Dyer Orlando Florida [email protected] (407) 246-2221
Frank Ortis Pembroke Pines Florida [email protected] (954) 435-6505
Michael Boehm Lenexa Kansas [email protected] (913) 477-7550
Michael Copeland Olathe Kansas [email protected] (913) 971-8500
Kevin Dumas Attleboro Massachusetts [email protected] (508) 223-2222
Gary Christenson Malden Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 397-7000
Michael McGlynn Medford Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 393-2409
Daniel Rizzo Revere Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 286-8111
Albert Kelly Bridgeton New Jersey [email protected] (856)-455-3230
Dana Redd Camden New Jersey [email protected] (856) 757-7200
Frank Nolan Highlands New Jersey [email protected] (732) 872-1224
David DelVecchio Lambert New Jersey [email protected] (609) 397-0110
Gary Passanante Somerdale New Jersey [email protected] (856) 783-6320
Thomas Kelaher Toms River New Jersey [email protected] (732) 341-1000
Eric Jackson Trenton New Jersey [email protected] (609) 989-3030
Richard Berry Albuquerque New Mexico [email protected] (505) 768-3000
Ken Miyagishima Las Cruces New Mexico [email protected] (575) 541-2067
Byron Brown Buffalo New York [email protected] (716) 851-4890
Ernest D. Davis Mount Vernon New York [email protected] (914) 665-2300
Lou Odgen Tualatin Oregon [email protected] (503) 691-3011
Joseph DiGirolamo Bensalem Pennsylvania [email protected] (215) 633-3603
Eric Papenfuse Harrisburg Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 255-3040
Rick Gray Lancaster Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 291-4701
Robert A. McMahon Media Pennsylvania [email protected] (610) 566-5210
Michael Nutter Philadelphia Pennsylvania [email protected] (215) 686-2181
C. Kim Bracey York Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 849-2221
Joseph Riley Charleston South Carolina [email protected] (843) 577-6970
Stephen Benjamin Columbia South Carolina [email protected] (803) 545-3075
Lee Leffingwell Austin Texas [email protected] (512) 974-2250
Beth Van Duyne Irving Texas [email protected] (972) 721-2410
Allen Owen Missouri City Texas [email protected] (281) 403-8500
Leonard Scarcella Stafford Texas [email protected] (281) 261-3900
Matthew Doyle Texas City Texas [email protected] (409) 643-5902

This article updated 8/28 to reflect that Pedro Segarra is the mayor of Hartford, Conn., not Hartford, Colo.

Comcast’s Reputation for Bad Customer Service is Legendary and Never-Ending

psctest

Comcast has repeatedly touted its rating from J.D. Power & Associates claiming the company has been cited for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. That isn’t saying very much when one takes a closer look.

comcast-time-warner-cable-mergerIn fact, since 2010 Comcast has achieved very little improvement in its abysmal score. J.D. Power & Associates reports that over the last four years, Comcast has only managed to boost its TV satisfaction score 92 points and Internet satisfaction 77 points… on a 1,000-point scale.[1]

Comcast also continues to have below-average scores in all four regions for both television and broadband, with the exception of Internet service in the north-central region, where it faces competition from DSL offered by telephone company CenturyLink.

Other consumer satisfaction surveys are far less charitable to Comcast.

Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their service and customer relations mediocre. In a survey conducted in April, the consumer group found 56% of the public opposed to the merger, 11% supported it, and 32% offered no opinion. The survey found 74% believing the merger will result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.[2]

“A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel in Consumers Union’s D.C. office, said in a statement.[3]

Nearly every year, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises improvements.[4] But according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, those improvements never arrive.

In 2004, ACSI noted it added cable television to its index in 2000, and since that time, “customer satisfaction has gone from bad to worse, and there is no improvement in sight:”[5]

ows_139276912850214Among cable providers, Time Warner has the highest score of 60. Both Comcast and Charter Communications register at 56. For the private as well as public sector, including the IRS, this is the lowest level of customer satisfaction of any organization in ACSI. Consumer complaints are also much more common relative to any other measured industry. Almost half of all cable customers have registered complaints about one thing or another.

When buyers have meaningful choice alternatives, this level of customer (dis)satisfaction is neither competitive nor sustainable. Cable is the only industry to score below 60 in ACSI. With the satellite companies removed, the weighted average for the cable industry is 59.

Under normal competitive conditions, there would be mass customer defections. The reason this is not the case for the cable industry is due to local monopoly power, which means that in most markets, the dissatisfied customer has nowhere to go.

In 2007, ACSI foreshadows what a merger between two giant cable companies is likely to mean for customers as the two companies eventually attempt to integrate their disparate computer systems and management:[6]

After a minor gain in 2006, the first ever for the industry, satisfaction among subscribers to cable and satellite TV service drops 2% to 62, the lowest level of customer satisfaction among all industries covered by ACSI.  None of the providers has improved on customer satisfaction this year.  Comcast (down 7% to 56), DirecTV (down 6% to 67) and Time Warner Cable (down 5% to 58) tumble.  High system loads causing problems with reliability and pricing were major culprits.  Both Comcast and Time Warner have acquired many new subscribers in their deal to divide up troubled cable provider Adelphia Communications – integrating these acquisitions often leads to short-term problems with customer satisfaction.

Comcast MergerIn 2008, things deteriorated further for Comcast customers, according to this ACSI assessment:[7]

Comcast is down 4% to 54, an all-time low for the largest cable provider in the country. Rapid growth may have contributed to difficulties in operations as Comcast continues to add cable subscribers, often through acquisitions of companies in smaller markets.

[…] As is often the case, small is often better in terms of being able to provide good customer service. Cablevision, for example, with some 3 million subscribers, is barely 1/8th the size of Comcast. These companies don’t generally seek to expand quickly beyond their geographic footprints and are often targets of acquisition by larger firms, companies that may be able to withstand depressed customer satisfaction in the short term as operations of the smaller providers are integrated.

This year, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable fell even further according to ACSI:[8]

Cable giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable have the most dissatisfied customers. Comcast falls 5% to 60, while Time Warner registers the biggest loss and plunges 7% to 56, its lowest score to date.

“Comcast and Time Warner assert their proposed merger will not reduce competition because there is little overlap in their service territories,” says David VanAmburg, ACSI Director. “Still, it’s a concern whenever two poor-performing service providers combine operations. ACSI data consistently show that mergers in service industries usually result in lower customer satisfaction, at least in the short term. It’s hard to see how combining two negatives will be a positive for consumers.”

ACSI also scored Internet Service Providers this year and found even worse news:[9]

High prices, slow data transmission and unreliable service drag satisfaction to record lows, as customers have few  alternatives beyond the largest Internet service providers. Customer satisfaction with ISPs drops 3.1% to 63, the lowest score in the Index.

[…] Cable-company-controlled ISPs languish at the bottom of the rankings again. Cox Communications is the best of these and stays above the industry average despite a 6% fall to 64. Customers rate Comcast (-8% to 57) and Time Warner Cable (-14% to 54) even lower for Internet service than for their TV service. In both industries, the two providers have the weakest customer satisfaction.

Comcast claims the transaction will allow the two companies to invest in their networks, improve customer service, and enhance the products available to Time Warner Cable customers.

In reality, Comcast’s largest investment will be in a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their stockholders.[10] Time Warner Cable’s current CEO has secured for himself a golden parachute package of $78 million dollars for just two months on the job as CEO of Time Warner Cable.[11]

With that kind of money on the table, it is no surprise Comcast has invested in 76 lobbyists from 24 different lobbying firms and is spending millions trying to convince regulators, including the NY PSC that this transaction is a good deal for New York. The more than 2,700 New Yorkers that have filed comments with the PSC, largely in strong opposition to this merger, disagree. Their voices should speak louder than out of state groups that have been urged by Comcast to send letters supporting this transaction.

[1]http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/comcast-time-warner-cable-remain-among-most-hated-tv-providers-survey-1201145921/
[2]http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/comcast-time-warner-cable-merger-poll-shows-majority-oppose-1201224277/
[3]http://cuactionfund.org/get-the-facts
[4]http://www.dslreports.com/shownews/Comcast-CEO-Makes-His-Yearly-Promise-to-Improve-Customer-Service-128206
[5]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/86-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2004
[6]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/169-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2007
[7]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/179-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2008
[8]http://www.theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2014/press-release-telecommunications-and-information-2014
[9]http://www.theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2014/press-release-telecommunications-and-information-2014
[10]http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/02/comcast_agrees_to_purchase_of.html
[11]http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/03/20/four-months-as-time-warner-cables-ceo--80-million/6658083/

Comcast: ‘We Were Against Net Neutrality Before We Clamed to Be For It’

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Should this merger be approved, Comcast will control 40-50 percent of all broadband access nationwide.[1] That offers Comcast market power that can be used to discriminate against others.

Comcast paid homeless people to "hold their seats" at an FCC hearing in 2008. (Image: Free Press)

Comcast paid homeless people to “hold their seats” at an FCC hearing in 2008. (Image: Free Press)

Comcast’s recent past contains several disturbing incidents that came as a result of its market power and its vast resources to influence telecommunications public policy debates:

  • In 2008, Comcast admitted to paying homeless people in Boston to pack an FCC meeting on Net Neutrality, keeping company critics out of the room.[2]
  • The company that now promises to abide voluntarily to Net Neutrality regulations is also one of the few found culpable for violating the principle. In mid-2008, the FCC ruled that Comcast’s policy of interfering with peer-to-peer file traffic was a violation of Net Neutrality rules. When customers found out, the company voluntarily ended the speed throttling, imposing usage caps instead.[3]
  • This month, Comcast reportedly stepped in and ordered the removal of news content critical of its Net Neutrality policies from a publication in which it has an ownership interest.[4]
  • In May 2011, a Comcast manager threatened to pull funding from a Seattle-based media advocacy group that criticized the company for hiring a former Republican FCC official, Meredith Attwell Baker, just after she supported the NBC Universal deal.[5]
  • Comcast has aggressively pursued agreements with over-the-top (online video) competitors that effectively force them to sign special connection agreements that mitigate the deteriorating quality of streamed video Comcast customers receive from services like Netflix.[6] Comcast’s size gives it de facto control over its customers’ online experiences.

While we note Comcast has agreed to temporarily abide by Net Neutrality principles, the Commission should know Comcast has a long record lobbying against Net Neutrality on philosophical grounds.[7]

Comcast agreed to abide by Net Neutrality principles as a condition to win approval of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, approved by the FCC in 2011. But as Brian Fung from the Washington Post noted, its agreement with the government will expire just four years from now[8]:

But what Comcast doesn’t say is that its commitment to “full” net neutrality expires in 2018. After that, it will no longer be legally bound to follow the 2010 rules, and it’ll be free to abandon that commitment literally overnight.

Just one year earlier, Comcast was before the United States Court of Appeals – D.C. Circuit suing the FCC over its authority to enforce Net Neutrality policies. Comcast won its suit.[9]

If Comcast now feels favorable towards Net Neutrality, it should voluntarily agree to abide by its guiding principles in perpetuity.

[1]http://broadcastingcable.com/news/washington/judiciary-raises-programming-broadband-control-issues-comcasttwc/130396
[2]http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/homeless-comcast-will-pay-to-attend-fcc-hearings_b7915
[3]http://www.dailydot.com/politics/net-neutrality-violations-history/
[4]http://www.republicreport.org/2014/comcast-affiliated-newsite-censored-my-article-about-net-neutrality-lobbying/
[5]http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-tech/post/comcast-yanks-funds-for-nonprofit-after-tweet-about-fcc-bakers-jump/2011/05/19/AF7aGG7G_blog.html
[6]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304899704579391223249896550
[7]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB125354032776727741
[8]https://www.techdirt.com/articles/20140724/13525627992/comcast-ramps-up-ad-campaign-claiming-to-support-net-neutrality-even-as-it-really-supports-killing-it.shtml
[9]http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/EA10373FA9C20DEA85257807005BD63F/$file/08-1291-1238302.pdf

More Proof of Comcast’s Monopoly Tendencies: Spending Big to Kill Community Broadband Competition

When the community of Batavia, Ill., a distant suburb of Chicago, decided they wanted something better than the poor broadband offered by Comcast and what is today AT&T, it decided to hold a public referendum on whether the town should construct and run its own fiber to the home network for the benefit of area residents and businesses. A local community group, Fiber for Our Future, put up $4,325 to promote the initiative back in 2004, if only because the town obviously couldn’t spend tax dollars to advertise or promote the idea itself.

Within weeks of the announced proposal, both Comcast and SBC Communications (which later acquired AT&T) launched an all-out war on the idea of fiber to the home service, mass mailing flyers attacking the proposal to area residents and paying for push polling operations that asked area residents questions like, “should tax money be allowed to provide pornographic movies for residents?” The predictable opposition measured in response to questions like that later appeared in mysterious opinion pieces published in area newspapers submitted by the incumbent companies and their allies.

no comm broadband

Comcast spent $89,740 trying to defeat the measure in a community of just 26,000 people. SBC spent $192,324 — almost $3.50 per resident by Comcast and just shy of $7.50 per resident by SBC. Much the same happened in the neighboring communities of St. Charles and Geneva. 

According to Motherboard, the scare tactics worked, cutting support for the fiber network from over 72 percent to its eventual defeat in two separate referendums, leaving most of Batavia with 3Mbps DSL from SBC or an average of 6Mbps from Comcast.

Much of the blizzard of mailers and brochures Comcast and SBC mailed out were part of a coordinated disinformation campaign. Both companies also knew their claims would go largely unchallenged because Fiber for Our Future and other fiber proponents lacked the funding to respond with fact check pieces of their own mailed to residents to expose the distortions.

When it was all over, it was back to business as usual with Comcast and SBC. The latter defended its reputation after complaints soared about its inadequate broadband speeds.

Kirk Brannock, then midwest networking president for SBC, told city council members in the area that “fiber is an unproven technology.”

“What are you going to do with 20Mbps? It’s like having an Indy race car and you don’t have the racetrack to drive it on. We are going to be offering 3Mbps. Most users won’t use that,” he said.

risky

“All the subscribers got these extraordinary fliers. Ghosts, goblins, witches. I mean, this is about a broadband utility. Very scary stuff. This is real. This is comical, but this is very real,” Catharine Rice of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice said of the fliers at an event discussing municipal fiber earlier this year. “They have this amazing picture, and then they lie about what happened. They’re piling in facts that aren’t true.”

In communities that won approval for construction of publicly-owned fiber networks, the battle wasn’t over. Tennessee’s large state cable lobbying group unsuccessfully sued EPB to keep it out of the fiber business. In North Carolina, Time Warner Cable effectively wrote legislation introduced and passed by the Republican-dominated General Assembly that forbade community broadband expansion and made constructing new networks nearly impossible. In Ohio, another cable industry-sponsored piece of legislation destroyed the business plan of Lebanon’s fiber network, forcing the community to eventually sell the network at a loss to Cincinnati Bell.

The larger Comcast grows, the more financial resources it can bring to bare against any would-be competitors. Even in 2004, the company was large enough to force would-be community competitors to steer clear and stay out of its territory.

women

 

Albania Says Goodbye to Usage Caps: 1-100Mbps Broadband in the Land of Sheep

ABCom is Albania's largest ISP.

ABCom is Albania’s largest ISP.

Albanians no longer have to watch usage meters while browsing the Internet and downloading movies and music. The country’s largest ISP – ABCom – has eliminated data caps on all but its cheapest broadband plans (4Mbps service with a 2GB cap: $4.81 for 15 days or 4Mbps service with a 5GB cap: $9.69 for 30 days). Now residents of Tirana, Durrës, Shkodër, Elbasan, Vlorë, and Gjirokastër can browse the Internet at self-selected speeds between 1-100Mbps with no usage-based billing or fixed caps.

It is remarkable progress for Europe’s poorest country. For much of the 20th century, Albania was infamous for its oppressive Communist dictatorship under the leadership of Enver Hoxha, a man who felt Stalin was the Soviet Union’s last true Communist leader and who courted and later cut ties with both the U.S.S.R. and the People’s Republic of China over what he called their “revisionist Marxist-Leninist” policies that betrayed true socialism. Hoxha’s idea of a worker’s paradise was to force huge numbers of both blue and white color workers into the fields every summer to help harvest the country’s strawberry crop.

During Hoxha’s 40 years in power, telecommunications for most Albanians consisted of a portable radio (and occasionally an imported television). Only 1.4 out of 100 had basic telephone service. If more wanted it, they could not get it. A long waiting list guaranteed an installation date years in the future. Albania began its transformation into a democracy with just 42,000 telephone lines, despite a population of nearly three million.

After the Communist government fell in 1991, life changed little in rural Albania. Peasants found initiatives to improve rural telephone service so irrelevant they knocked out service to about 1,000 villages after commandeering telephone wire to build fences to keep their sheep herds from straying. Even in the capital city Tirana, telecommunications infrastructure was decrepit at best. Even the wealthiest Albanians had to contend with rotary dial telephones produced in a forgotten factory in Bulgaria or Romania. Many preferred refurbished telephones rebuilt with scrap parts obtained from Italy.

Today, like many other countries lacking wired infrastructure, Albanians depend mostly on their cell phones to communicate. In 2012, there were 312,000 landlines in use, but 3.5 million cell phones were active. More than a half million wireless users rely entirely on their phones for Internet access.

no limit internet

“Are you ready for unlimited Internet with guaranteed 100Mbps speed?”

In 1998, ABCom launched its Internet Service Provider business, initially selling DSL and wireless broadband. With Albania’s economy always in difficulty, the country chose the cheaper path followed by North America — adopting Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network technology instead of fiber to the home, common elsewhere in southern Europe. HFC Internet access is better known by most of us as broadband from our local cable company. Expansion of wired broadband has been very slow in Albania. The concept of delivering television, broadband, and phone service over ABCom’s cable system in a triple play package only began in 2009.

The biggest attractions to wired broadband include no data caps and more reliable fixed broadband speeds the country’s wireless providers cannot deliver. Because of wide income disparity, ABCom offers a large range of speed plans for different budgets: 1, 2, 4, 8, 12, 30, and 100Mbps.

In response, competition from wireless providers has stepped up recently. Vodafone Albania is offering five mobile Internet options for users of its 3G network. Customers can opt to pay for daily, weekly or monthly bundles. The 40MB daily bundle costs $0.58; the 250MB weekly bundle costs $2.91; the 500MB monthly bundle costs $4.85, and the 1GB monthly bundle costs $7.76. The speeds are much slower than the plans offered by ABCom, however.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ABCom Mesazh Promocional nga ABCom March 2013.mp4

ABCom produced this television ad introducing its new triple play TV, broadband, and telephone package for Albanian customers. (Albanian) (0:31)

Stop the Cap!’s Testimony Before the N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast-TWC Merger

lousy-tshirt-640x640For the benefit of new visitors, text items in bold are clickable links. A complete video from this event will be posted as soon as possible.

Good evening. My name is Phillip Dampier from Stop the Cap!, a Rochester-based all-volunteer consumer group fighting for better broadband service and against Internet usage caps.

This is a critical moment for New York. The Internet has become a necessity for most of us and the future is largely in the hands of one company capable of delivering 21st century broadband to the majority of upstate New York. That company isn’t Verizon, which has ended FiOS fiber expansion while abandoning most of its upstate customers with slow speed DSL. Indeed, as their market share will attest, our broadband future is held in the hands of Time Warner Cable.

Comcast could have become a big player in New York had it chosen to compete head to head with Time Warner. But large cable operators avoid that kind of competition, preferring comfortable fiefdoms that only change hands at the whim of the companies involved. As local officials from across New York have already discovered, no major cable operator will compete for an expiring franchise currently held by another major cable operator.

Ironically, Comcast is using that fact in its favor, noting that since neither company competes directly with the other, making Comcast larger has no impact on competition. But that should hardly be the only test.

At issue is whether this merger is in the public interest. This year, for the first time in a long time, the rules have changed in New York. In the past, the Commission had to prove the merger was not in the best interests of New Yorkers. Now the onus is on Comcast to prove it is. It has fallen far short of meeting that burden.

Let’s start with Comcast’s dysfunctional relationship with its customers. With more than 75 citizen comments filed with the Commission so far. Comcast’s reputation clearly precedes it. The consensus view is perhaps best represented by one exasperated Clinton-area resident who wrote, I quote, “No. No no no. HELL no.

dream onThat kind of reaction is unsurprising considering Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their Internet service and customer relations mediocre. Every year since 2007, Comcast’s CEO acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises to do better. Seven years later, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reports absolutely no measurable improvement. In fact, ACSI has concluded Comcast had the worst customer satisfaction rating of any company or government agency in the country, including the IRS.

In order to sell this $45 billion boondoggle to a skeptical public, Comcast has hired 76 lobbyists from 24 different firms and will reportedly spend millions trying to convince regulators and our elected leaders this deal is good for New York. If the deal gets done, Comcast’s biggest spending spree won’t be on behalf of its customers. Instead, Comcast has announced a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their shareholders. Imagine if this money was instead spent on improving customer service and selling a better product at a lower price.

don't careThe only suitable response to this merger deal is its outright rejection. Some may recommend imposing a handful of temporary conditions in return for approval – like the kind Sen. Al Franken accused Comcast of reneging on after its earlier merger with NBCUniversal. But this is one of those cases where you just can’t fit a round peg into a square deal for consumers, no matter how hard you try.

With respect to television, volume discounts have a huge impact on cable programming costs and competition. The biggest players get the best discounts, smaller ones are stunned by programming rate hikes and new competitors think twice about getting into the business.

AT&T said last week its 5.7 million customer U-verse television service was too small to get the kind of discounts its cable and satellite competitors receive. AT&T’s solution is to buy DirecTV, which might be good for AT&T but is bad for competition.

Frontier Communications has also felt the volume discount sting after adopting several Verizon FiOS franchises. When it lost Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier began a relentless marketing effort to convince its customers to abandon FiOS TV and switch to technically inferior satellite TV.

Combining Comcast and Time Warner Cable will indeed help Comcast secure better deals from major programmers (including Comcast itself). But Comcast is already on record warning those savings won’t be shared with customers.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen summed it up best: “We are certainly not promising that customer bills will go down or increase less rapidly.”

Is that in the public interest?

xfinity_blowsComcast suggests this merger will make its cable television market share no larger than it had in 2002 when it bought the assets of AT&T Cable. But this is 2014 and cable television is increasingly no longer the industry’s biggest breadwinner. Broadband is, and post-merger Comcast will control 40-50 percent of the Internet access market nationwide.

So what do Time Warner Cable customers get if Comcast takes over? A higher bill and worse service.

Several months before Comcast sought this merger, Time Warner announced a series of major upgrades under an initiative called TWC Maxx. Over the next two years, Time Warner Cable plans to more than triple the Internet speeds customers get now at no additional charge. Those upgrades are already available in parts of New York City, Los Angeles, and Austin.

A Time Warner Cable customer in Queens used to pay $57.99 for 15 megabit broadband. As of last month, for the same price, they get 50 megabits.

In contrast, Comcast’s Internet Plus plan delivers just 25 megabits and costs $69.95 a month – nearly $12 more for half the speed. Who has the better broadband at a better price? Time Warner Cable.

New York State’s digital economy depends on Internet innovation, which means some customers need faster speeds than others. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx initiative already delivers far superior speeds than what Comcast offers, despite claims from Comcast this merger would deliver New York a broadband upgrade.

isp blockTime Warner’s new top of the line Internet service, Ultimate 300 (formerly Ultimate 50), delivers 300 megabit service for $74.99 a month. Comcast’s top cable broadband offer listed on their website is Extreme 105, offering 105 megabit speeds at prices ranging from $99.95 to $114.95.

Is the public interest better served with 300 megabits for $74.99 from Time Warner Cable or paying almost $40 more for one-third of that speed from Comcast? Again, Time Warner Cable has the better deal for customers.

But the charges keep coming.

At least 90 percent of cable customers lease their cable modem from the cable company, and Comcast charges one of the highest lease rates in the industry – $8 a month. Time Warner Cable charges just under $6.

So I ask again, is this merger really in the public interest when broadband customers will be expected to pay more for less service?

Then there is the issue of usage caps, a creative way to put a toll on innovation. Usage caps make high bandwidth applications of the future untenable while also protecting cable television revenue.

If the PSC approves this transaction, the vast majority of New York will live under Comcast’s returning usage cap regime. There is simply no justification for usage limits on residential broadband service, particularly from a company as profitable as Comcast. Verizon FiOS does not have caps. Neither does Cablevision. But the majority of upstate New Yorkers won’t have the option of choosing either.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable lived through a two week public relations nightmare when they attempted an experiment with compulsory usage caps on customers in Rochester. After Stop the Cap! pushed back, then CEO Glenn Britt shelved the idea. Britt would later emphasize he now believed Time Warner should always have an unlimited use tier available for customers who want it.

Whether intended or not, Time Warner actually proved that was the right idea. In early 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps in return for discounts. They quickly discovered customers have no interest in having their Internet usage measured and limited, even for a discount. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced to enroll.

comcast sucksComcast doesn’t give customers a choice. In 2008, a strict 250GB usage cap was imposed on all residential customers with disconnect threats for violators. Since announcing it would re-evaluate that cap in May 2012, it now appears Comcast has settled on a new residential 300GB usage allowance gradually being reintroduced in Comcast service areas starting in southern U.S. markets.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen cutely calls them “usage thresholds.” At Stop the Cap! we call it Internet Overcharging.

Cohen predicts Comcast will have broadband usage thresholds imposed on every city they serve within five years. Whether you call it a cap or a threshold, it is in fact a limit on how much Internet service you can consume without risking overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment over your allowance.

Unlike Time Warner Cable, Comcast isn’t offering a discount with its usage cap, so those who use less will still pay the same they always have, proving again that usage caps don’t save customers money. (See below for clarification)

At the end of May I watched CNBC interview Comcast CEO Brian Roberts who implied during a discussion about Comcast’s usage caps that usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business. Moments later, Time Warner Cable ran an ad emphasizing its broadband service has no usage caps. Both companies are making plenty of money from broadband.

This merger is bad news for customers faced with Comcast’s legendary bad service, its forthcoming usage caps, or the higher prices it charges. Even promised innovations like their much touted X1 set top platform comes with a gotcha Comcast routinely forgets to mention. Customers have to pay a $99 installation fee.

Stop the Cap! will submit a more comprehensive filing with the PSC outlining all of our objections to this merger, and there are several more. We invite anyone in the audience to visit stopthecap.com for this and other matters related to cable television and broadband. We appreciate being invited to share our views with the Commission and hope to bring a consumer perspective to this important development in our shared telecommunications future. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TWC News Hearing on Comcast 6-16-14.mp4

Time Warner Cable News covered the Public Service Commission hearing in Buffalo, which included testimony from Stop the Cap!’s Phillip Dampier. Also appearing was a representative from the National Black Chamber of Commerce advocating that telecom companies merge as fast as possible. The Chamber has received significant support from Comcast for several years now and representatives routinely testify in favor of Comcast’s business initiatives. (2:30)

Clarification: Comcast has different trials in different cities:

Nashville, Tennessee: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Tucson, Arizona: Economy Plus through Performance XFINITY Internet tiers: 300 GB. Blast! Internet tier: 350 GB; Extreme 50 customers: 450 GB; Extreme 105: 600 GB. $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB; XFINITY Internet Economy Plus customers can choose to enroll in the Flexible-Data Option to receive a $5.00 credit on their monthly bill and reduce their data usage plan from 300 GB to 5 GB. If customers choose this option and use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, they will not receive the $5.00 credit and will be charged an additional $1.00 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible-Data Option;

Fresno, California, Economy Plus customers also have the option of enrolling in the Flexible-Data Option.

Comcast suggested customers can enroll in a cheaper usage plan in some of these markets. Yes they can, but only if they downgrade to Economy Plus service which offers speeds only up to 3Mbps. Their $5 discount is not available on any other plan.

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