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

Malone

Malone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critics for hire.

Critics for hire.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crawford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ori

Isiogu

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

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

A sample:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isiogu doesn’t know his history either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stop the Cap!’s Election Guide for Broadband Enthusiasts

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

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

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

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

Obama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But differences quickly emerge from there.

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

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

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

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

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

Romney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Short History of Wireless Cable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rebooting Wireless Cable for the 21st Century

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Look at Today’s MVDDS Wireless Players

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… Continue Reading

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Corporate Doublespeak: “Price Signaling” is Just Another Way of Saying “Collusion”

History repeats itself. In 1889, it was railroads, steel, iron, and energy. Today it is telecommunications.

My first introduction to the concept of corporate doublespeak — designed to cushion the blow of bad news behind a wall of barely-comprehensible babble came in October 1987 when I heard one Wall Street analyst refer to the great stock market crash that had just befallen the financial district as a “fourth quarter equity retreat.”

Holy euphemism, Batman!

You weren’t fired — you were “made redundant.”  The bankruptcy of Detroit automakers and the layoffs that followed were not as bad as they looked. It was merely “a career-alternative enhancement program.”

And, no, Verizon and AT&T are not engaged in should-be-illegal marketplace collusion on pricing and services. They are just practicing some harmless “price signaling.”

That’s the awe-struck view of management consultant Rags Srinivasan, who just gushes over the marketing “stroke of genius” that threatens to give customers a stroke when they open their monthly bill.

Srinivasan’s piece, worthy of the Wall Street Journal editorial page, turns up instead on GigaOm, where it gets some pretty harsh treatment from tech-lovers who hate the rising prices of wireless service.

Price signaling has always existed between the number one and number two players in any market. Agreeing to not engage in a price war is truly a win-win for the market leaders. Since outright price fixing is illegal, market leaders resorted to signaling to tell the other company their intentions or send a threat about their cost advantages.

But traditionally, it was more like flirting — ambiguous enough that the underlying intentions could be denied. Why are these two not shy about admitting to flirting now? The simple answer is the iPhone.

Not too long ago we worried about running out of talk minutes and paying overage. Service providers offered us tiered plans that offered more minutes for a higher price and unlimited minutes for an even higher price. With the additional revenue flowing directly to their bottom line, these higher priced plans were real cash cows.

For those who have any doubt about the profits from unlimited plans, I’d point out that the costs of a mobile service provider are sunk with zero marginal cost for additional minutes. And texts don’t even consume traffic channels — they piggyback on control channels.

[...] In another genius pricing move, Verizon Wireless is presenting this $100 mobile service plan to customers in a bundle — talk minutes plus data. In the past, around $70 was allocated to talk because consumers valued it more. Now subscribers pay only $40, but they still pay the same $100 total price. This is nothing short of pricing excellence, protecting customer margin while also using strong price signaling to make sure that the next biggest market share leader follows suit.

What Srinivasan calls “business at its best” and “pricing excellence” we call collusion at its most obvious. The GigaOm author says he does not want the government tinkering with this kind of marketplace “signaling,” and it does not appear likely he has much to worry about. AT&T and Verizon executives have grown increasingly brazen (and obvious) with their near-identical pricing and “me-too” plans which leave little to differentiate the two carriers from a pricing perspective. The likely result will be at least 100 million cell phone customers eventually stuck paying for unlimited voice and texting services they neither want or need.

Wireless Wonder Twins Powers Activate: Shape of anti-competitive marketplace for consumers; form of collusion.

True, AT&T charges Cadillac prices but has the customer service image of a used 1995 Kia… but they did have the original exclusive rights to the Apple iPhone and Apple devotees proved they will endure a lot. Verizon Wireless has a better network and has always charged accordingly.

Unfortunately for consumers, the also-rans Sprint and T-Mobile (and the smaller still) depend on AT&T and Verizon for roaming off the city highway and into the countryside, and they are often stuck with devices that are a step down from what the bigger two can offer.

Srinivasan would have a better argument if the wireless marketplace had not become so consolidated. Had AT&T had its way with T-Mobile, America would have just a single national GSM network — AT&T. Verizon does not consider its CDMA competitor much of a bother either, and Sprint Nextel CEO Dan Hesse has to divide his time between fighting with Wall Street over why the company has not already sold out to the highest bidder (and now wants to spend a fortune upgrading its network) and customers who consider Sprint too much of a trade-off in coverage and its dismal “4G” Clearwire WiMAX network too slow for 2012.

Srinivasan is probably too young to understand AT&T and Verizon never invented “price signaling.” A century ago, the railroad robber barons did much the same, leveraging their anti-competitive networks-of-a-different-kind to maximize prices in places that had few alternatives. Where competitors did arrive, they were typically bought out to “maximize savings and eliminate market inefficiencies.” The same was true in the steel and energy sector of the early 20th century.

The result is that consumers were turned upside down to shake out the last loose change from their pockets. Eventually, government stepped in and called it marketplace collusion and passed antitrust laws that began a new era for true competition.

How soon some forget.

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A History Lesson: Wireless Spectrum “Crisis” Hoopla vs. Solid Network Engineering

“Somehow in the last 100 years, every time there is a problem of getting more spectrum, there is a technology that comes along that solves that problem. Every two and a half years, every spectrum crisis has gotten solved, and that’s going to keep happening. We already know today what the solutions are for the next 50 years.” — Martin Cooper, inventor of the portable cell phone

Despite the fear-mongering by North America’s wireless phone companies that a spectrum crisis is at hand — one that threatens the viability of wireless communications across the continent, some of the most prominent industry veterans dispute the public policy agenda of phone companies like AT&T, Verizon, Bell, and Rogers.

Martin Cooper ought to know.  He invented the portable cell phone, and remains involved in the wireless industry today.  Cooper shrugs off cries of spectrum shortages as a problem well-managed by technological innovation.  In fact, he’s credited for Cooper’s Law: The ability to transmit different radio communications at one time and in the same place has grown with the same pace since Guglielmo Marconi’s first transmissions in 1895. The number of such communications being theoretically possible has doubled every 30 months, from then, for 104 years.

National Public Radio looks back at the earliest car phones, which weighed 80 pounds and operated with vacuum tubes. Innovation, improved technology, and lower pricing turned an invention for the rich and powerful into a device more than 300,000,000 North Americans own and use today. (April 2012) (3 minutes)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

A traditional car phone from the 1960s.

The earliest cell phones have been around since the 1940s.  St. Louis was the first city in the United States to get Mobile Telephone Service (MTS).  It worked on three analog radio channels and required an operator to make calls on the customer’s behalf. By 1964, direct dialing from car phones became possible with Improved Mobile Telephone Service (IMTS), which also increased the number of radio channels available for calls.

In the 1970s, popular television shows frequently showed high-flyers and private detectives with traditional looking phones installed in their cars.  But the service was obscenely expensive.  The equipment set customers back $2-4,000 or was leased for around $120 a month.  Local calls ran $0.70-1.20 per minute.  That was when a nice home was priced at $27,000, a new car was under $4,000, gas was $0.55/gallon, and a first run movie ticket was priced at $1.75.

With many cities maintaining fewer than a dozen radio channels for the service, only a handful of customers could make or receive calls at a time.  The first “spectrum crisis” arrived by the late 1970s, when car phones became the status symbol of the rich and powerful (the middle class had pagers). Customers found they couldn’t make or receive calls because the frequencies were all tied up.  Some cities even rationed service by maintaining waiting lists, not allowing new customers to have the technology until an existing one dropped their account.

Instead of demanding deregulation and warning of wireless doomsday, the wireless industry innovated its way out of the era of MTS altogether, switching instead to a “cellular” approach developed in part by the Bell System.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Testing the First Public Cell Phone Network.flv

In the 1970s, when the first cell phone “spectrum crisis” erupted, the Bell System innovated its way out the the dilemma without running to Congress demanding sweeping deregulation.  This documentary, produced by the Bell System, explores AMPS — analog cell phone service, and how it transformed Chicago’s mobile telephone landscape back in 1979.  (9 minutes)

“Arguing that the nation could run out of spectrum is like saying it was going to run out of a color.” David P. Reed, one of the original architects of the Internet

Instead of one caller tying up a single IMTS radio frequency capable of reaching across an entire city, the Bell System deployed lower-powered transmitters in a series of hexagonal “cells.”  Each cell only served callers within a much smaller geographic area.  As a customer traveled between cells, the system would hand the call off to the next cell in turn and so on — all transparently to the caller.  Because of the reduced coverage area, cell towers in a city could operate on the same frequencies without creating interference problems, opening up the system to many more customers and more calls.

Inventor Martin Cooper holds one of the first portable mobile phones

In Chicago, Bell’s IMTS system only supported around a dozen callers at the same time. In 1977, the phone company built a test cellular network it dubbed “AMPS,” for Advanced Mobile Phone System.  AMPS technology was familiar to many early cell phone users.  It was more popularly known as “analog” service, and while it could still only handle one conversation at a time on each frequency, the system supported better call handling and many more users than earlier wireless phone technology.  By 1979, Bell had 1,300 customers using their test system in Chicago.

AMPS considerably eased the “spectrum crunch” earlier systems found challenging, and subsequent upgrades to digital technology dramatically increased the number of calls each tower could handle and allowed providers to slash pricing, which fueled the spectacular growth of the wireless marketplace.

Yesterday it was voice call congestion, today it is a “tidal wave” of wireless data.  But inventors like Cooper believe the solution is the same: engineering innovation.

“Somehow in the last 100 years, every time there is a problem of getting more spectrum, there is a technology that comes along that solves that problem,” Cooper told the New York Times. “Every two and a half years, every spectrum crisis has gotten solved, and that’s going to keep happening. We already know today what the solutions are for the next 50 years.”

Cooper believes in the cellular approach to wireless communications.  Dividing up today’s geographic cells into even smaller cells could vastly expand network capacity just like AMPS did for Windy City residents in the late 1970s. Using especially directional antennas focused on different service areas, placing new cell towers, innovating further with tiny neighborhood antennas mounted on telephone poles, or building out Wi-Fi networks can all manage the data capacity “crisis” says Cooper.

New technology also allows cell signals to co-exist, even on the same or adjacent frequencies, without creating interference problems. All it takes is a willingness to invest in the technology and deploy it across signal-congested urban areas.

Unfortunately, network engineers are not often responsible for the business decisions or public policy agendas of the nation’s largest wireless companies who are using the “spectrum crisis” to argue for increased deregulation and demanding additional radio spectrum which, in some cases, could be locked up by companies to make sure nobody else can use them.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NY Times Mobile Carriers Warn of Spectrum Crisis.flv

The New York Times offers this easy-to-follow primer on wireless spectrum and why it matters (or not) in the current climate of explosive growth in mobile data traffic.  (3 minutes)

“Their primary interest is not necessarily in making spectrum available, or in making wireless performance better. They want to make money.” — David S. Isenberg, veteran researcher, AT&T Labs

Innovation, not wholesale deregulation, allowed the Bell System to solve the spectrum crisis of the 1970s by creating today's "cell system" that can re-use radio frequencies in adjacent areas to handle more wireless traffic.

Spectrum auctions bring billions to federal coffers, but actually deliver a hidden tax to cell phone customers who ultimately pay for the winning bids priced into their monthly bills.  It also makes it prohibitively expensive for a new player to enter the market.  Already facing enormous network construction costs, any new entrant would then face the crushing prospect of outbidding AT&T, Verizon Wireless, Bell or Rogers for the frequencies essential for operation.

As the New York Times writes:

When a company gets the license for a band of radio waves, it has the exclusive rights to use it. Once a company owns it, competitors can’t have it.

Mr. Reed said the carriers haven’t advocated for the newer technologies because they want to retain their monopolies.

Cooper advocates a new regulatory approach at the Federal Communications Commission — one that mandates wireless phone companies start using today’s technology to amplify their networks.

Cooper points to one example: the smart antenna.

Smart antennas direct cell towers to focus their transmission energy towards the specific devices connected to it.  If a customer was using their phone from the southern end of the cell tower’s coverage area, why direct signal energy to the north, where it gets wasted?  New LTE networks support smart antenna technology, but carriers have generally avoided investing in upgrading towers to support the new technology, expected to be commonplace inside new wireless devices within two years.

T-Mobile calls these technology solutions “Band-Aids” that won’t address the company’s demand for more frequencies to manage its network.  But that kind of thinking applied to the mobile phone world of the 1970s would have maintained the exorbitantly expensive IMTS technology discarded decades ago, since replaced by innovation that made more efficient use of the spectrum already on hand.  That innovation also transformed wireless phones from a tool (or toy) for the very wealthy to an affordable success story that now threatens the traditional wired phone network in ways the Bell System could have never envisioned.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Its a Whole New System.flv

It’s A Whole New System: AT&T and other wireless phone companies might want to learn the lesson the Bell System was trying to teach their employees back in 1979: Meet Change With Change.  This company-produced video implores the phone company to do more than the same old thing.  No, this video is not “PM Magazine.”  It is about innovation and actually listening to what customers want. With apologies to Mama Cass Elliot, there was indeed a New World Coming — the breakup of the Bell System just five years later.  Don’t miss the diabetic-coma-inducing, sugary-sweet jingle at the end.  Then reach for a can of Tab.  (10 minutes)

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The Death of the Landline? AT&T Ditches Yellow Pages, Pay Phones Disappear; So Do Customers

As AT&T joins Verizon selling off its Yellow Pages publishing unit and payphones keep disappearing from street corners, the media is writing the landline obituary once again.

CNN Money asks today whether we’re witnessing the death of the landline.

In as little as 20 years, the concept of a wired phone line may become the novelty a rotary-dial phone represents today.  Yes, traditional phone lines will still be found in businesses and in the homes of those uncomfortable dealing with a mobile phone, but America’s largest phone companies are well aware the traditional telephone line is in decline.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Archives What is the Bell System.flv

The Bell System, as it was known until the 1980s, used to comprise AT&T, Bell Labs, Western Electric, Long Lines, and two dozen local “operating companies” like New York Telephone, Mountain Bell, etc.  This AT&T documentary, from 1976, explores how “the phone company” used to function.  New innovations like “lightwave” are showcased, promising to deliver voice phone calls over glass fibers one day.  

Much of the technology seen in the documentary may be unfamiliar if you are under 30 (and check out how customer records were maintained back then), but those who remember renting telephones in garish colors from your local phone company will recognize the phones that occupied space in your home not that long ago.  The only part of the landline network that hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years is the wiring infrastructure itself, which has been allowed to deteriorate as customers continue to depart.

Why was the company so darn big back then?  Because it had to be, the documentary says, to serve a big America.  Hilariously, the company defends its then-status as a “regulated monopoly” telling viewers “[a] regulated monopoly works well in communications because you don’t duplicate facilities and you produce real economies over the long haul.”  (14 minutes)

CNN reports nearly one-third of all American homes no longer have landline service, double the rate from 2008, triple that of 2007.  Verizon is feeling the heat the most, with revenue down 19% over the last five years.  AT&T has seen their revenue drop 16.5% over the same period.

But things are not all bad for phone companies willing to spend money upgrading their networks.  Verizon’s top-rated FiOS fiber to the home service is a compelling competitor to Comcast and Time Warner Cable.  AT&T’s U-verse has gotten a respectable market share larger midwestern cities and draws customers who like its DVR box and the chance to stick it to the local cable company they’ve hated for years.

But where both companies have decided against investing in upgrades — notably in their rural service areas — the traditional phone line is trapped in time.  Only the network it depends on is changing, and not for the better.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT 1993-1994 You Will Ad Campaign Compilation.flv

Back in 1993, AT&T produced seven advertisements dubbed the “You Will” series, showcasing future technologies AT&T would “deliver to you.”  Eerily, the vast majority of these predictions came true, but mostly from companies other than AT&T.  While the phone company predicted what would eventually become E-ZPass, Apple’s iPad, Apple’s Siri, the smartphone, Skype, Amazon’s Kindle, the cable industry’s home security apps, video on demand, and GPS navigation, most of those innovations were developed and sold by others.  

AT&T spun away Bell Labs and became preoccupied selling Internet access, cell phones and reassembling itself into its former ‘hugeness’ through mergers and buyouts. With limited investment in innovation, AT&T risks being left as a “dumb pipe” provider, selling the connectivity (among many others) to allow other companies’ devices to communicate. (Alert: Loud Volume at around 2 minutes) (4 minutes)

Verizon decided to ditch its rural service areas to FairPoint Communications in northern New England and Frontier Communications in 14 other states.  The results have not been good for the buyers (and often customers).  FairPoint went bankrupt in 2009, overwhelmed by the debt it incurred buying phone lines in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.  Frontier has watched its sales fall ever since its own landline acquisition, and the company has gotten scores of complaints from ex-Verizon customers about broken promises for improved broadband, billing errors, and poor service.

Analysts predict AT&T will start dumping its rural landline customers in the near future as well, letting the company focus on its U-verse service areas.  But who will buy these cast-offs?  CNN reports nobody knows.  CenturyLink and Windstream, two major independent phone companies, don’t appear to be in the mood to acquire neglected landline facilities they will need to spend millions to repair and upgrade.

One thing is certain — both AT&T and Verizon are tailoring business plans to favor Wall Street approval.  The companies’ decisions to temporarily boost revenue selling pieces of its operations has helped stock prices, but has also made the companies shadows of their former selves.  Nearly 30 years ago, customers still paid the phone company to rent their home telephones, relied extensively on the companies’ lucrative White and Yellow Pages for directory information, and discovered new technology innovations like digital switching thanks to Bell Labs, the research arm of AT&T — today independent and known as Alcatel-Lucent.  Today, people in some cities cannot even find a telephone company-owned payphone.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WJBK Detroit Quest to Find a Working Pay Phone 4-10-12.mp4

WJBK in Detroit this week ventured out across Detroit to see if they could find a pay phone that actually works.  That old phone booth on the corner is long gone, and some admit they haven’t touched a pay phone in 20 years.  (2 minutes)

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