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The Bug is Back: AT&T’s Cricket Brand Launches New Ho-Hum Plans That Are More of the Same

Cricket has relaunched its website with a new logo and service plans as new owner AT&T merges its value-conscious Aio prepaid offering under the acquired Cricket brand name.

Targeting the credit-challenged, Cricket’s new service plans are not groundbreaking, basically copying Aio’s recent offers. Swept away are the low-cost “pay when you use” plans that only levy charges on the days you actually use the phone. Instead, Cricket is looking for a longer, committed relationship with month-long service plans and loyalty discounts:

cell plans

The relaunch of Cricket will bring changes for existing customers as AT&T begins to decommission Cricket’s freestanding CDMA 3G network in March 2015 in favor of AT&T’s GSM 4G LTE service. That means customers with current Cricket phones will need to eventually switch to a newer handset, a process being made easier with $50 rebates that can make some of Cricket’s smartphones available for free. Enroll in Cricket’s rewards program, stay with them a year, make your payments on time and you will also get a $50 device credit which can be used towards an upgrade next year.

cricket-logoCricket’s data plans do not carry automatic overlimit charges. Instead, your data connection is throttled to 128kbps until your billing period resets. Customers can buy an extra gigabyte of data at any time for $10.

There are several other changes that probably won’t affect the majority of Cricket customers:

  • There is a $5 discount for every month you are enrolled in Auto Pay to keep your phone active;
  • A family plan discount provides $10 off the monthly service charge of a second line, $20 off the third line, and $30 off the fourth and fifth line, for a maximum discount of $90 a month;
  • While you remain on your current Cricket service (on the CDMA network) you may keep paper billing. When you transition to the new Cricket (the 4G GSM network with nationwide coverage), you will no longer receive a paper bill;
  • Customers participating in the 5 for $100 promotion can continue with this rate plan only while on the Cricket CDMA network;
  • Cricket no longer offers military or friends & family discounts;
  • Cricket will transition out of the wireless Lifeline program. Current Lifeline customers can use Cricket’s CDMA network until it is shut down, after which they must choose a different provider;
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cricket Home New Cricket Merger Info.mp4

AT&T keeps its name and brand completely off the relaunched Cricket and Aio combined website. This introductory video explains the merger of the two wireless brands and what customers can expect. (1:44)

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Wall Street: Telecom Mergers Are Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious! Consumers: More Pocket-Picking

price-gouging-cake“Comcast Corp.’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. may be the opening act for a yearlong festival of telecommunications deals that would alter Internet, phone and TV service for tens of millions of Americans.” — Bloomberg News, May 14, 2014

Wall Street analysts remain certain Comcast and Time Warner Cable won’t be the only merger on the table this year as the $45 billion dollar deal is expected to spark a new wave of consolidation, further reducing competitive choice in telecom services for most Americans.

While the industry continues to insist that the current foundation of deregulation is key to investment and competition, the reality on the ground is less certain.

Let’s review history:

For several decades, the cable industry has avoided head-on competition with other cable operators. They argue the costs of “overbuilding” cable systems into territories already serviced by another company is financially impractical and reckless. But that did not stop telephone companies like AT&T and Verizon from overhauling portions of their networks to compete, and in at least some communities another provider has emerged to offer some competition. Some wonder if AT&T was willing to spend billions to upgrade their urban landline network to provide U-verse, why won’t cable companies spend some money and compete directly with one another?

The answer is simple: They can earn a lot more by limiting competition.

When only a few firms account for most of the sales of a product, those firms can sometimes exercise market power by either explicitly or implicitly coordinating their actions. Coordinated interaction is especially suspect where all firms seem to charge very similar prices and few, if any, are willing to challenge the status quo.

Since the 1980s, the telecommunications industry has been deregulated off and on to a degree not seen since the pioneer days of telephone service. That was the era when waves of mergers created near-monopolies in the oil, railroad, energy, tobacco, steel and sugar industries. By the late 1890s, evidence piled up that proved reducing the number of providers in a market leads to higher prices and poor service. The abuses eventually led to the passage of the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and later the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

Here is what happened when the cable industry was reined in during the early 1990s, only to be deregulated again.

The generation of political leaders that dominated Washington during the 1980s developed selective amnesia about economic history and dismantled many of the regulatory protections established to protect consumers, arguing competition would keep markets in check. In the broadband and cable business, that has not proved as successful as the industry represents.

At the heart of the problem is the 1996 Telecommunications Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The sweeping law is littered with lobbyist landmines for consumers and their interests. Under the guise of increasing competition, the 1996 law actually helped reduce competition by removing regulatory oversight and, perhaps unintentionally, sparking an enormous rampage of industry consolidation followed by price increases. The Bush Administration kept the war on consumers going with the appointment of Michael Powell (now the CEO of the cable industry’s lobbying group) to chair the Federal Communications Commission. Under Powell, non-discriminatory access to networks by competitors was curtailed, and Powell’s FCC gave carte blanche to the cable industry’s plan to cluster its territories into large regional monopolies and a tight national oligopoly. The FCC’s own researchers quietly admitted in the early 2000s “clustering raised prices.”

Cable prices

By January 2001, cable operators had settled on rate increases that averaged three times the rate of inflation. While the national inflation rate hovered around 1%, cable companies routinely raised basic cable rates an average of 7% annually. Powell declared rising cable rates were not a consumer problem and adopted the industry’s classic talking point that rate increases reflect the “value of the programming” found on cable. In fact, even as cable customers grew increasingly angry about rate increases, Powell told three different reporters he wanted to further relax the FCC’s involvement in cable pricing. (McClintock, Pamela, “Powell: No Cable Coin Crisis” Variety, April 30, 2001; Hearn, Ted. “Powell: Value Matters in Cable Rates,” Multichannel News, March 13, 2002; Powell Press Conference, February 8, 2001; Dreazen, Yochi. “FCC Chairman Signals Change, Plans to Limit Intervention,” Wall Street Journal, February 7, 2001.)

cost_broadband_around_the_world_v2Economists reviewing data found in publicly available corporate balance sheets soon found evidence that the “increased programming costs”-excuse for rate increases did not hold water. The less competition or number of choices available to consumers in the market unambiguously lead to higher prices. It has remained true since Consumers’ Union revealed the financial trickery in 2003:

The cable industry will claim that programming costs are driving prices up. While programming costs have certainly risen, a close look at the numbers shows that rising program costs account for only a small part of the rising rates.

If costs were really the cause of rising prices, then the cable industries’ operating margins – the difference between its revenues and costs — would not be rising. The facts are just the opposite. Operating margins have been increasing dramatically since 1997. The operating margin for the industry as a whole will reach $18.8 billion per year in 2002, $7 billion more than it was in 1997. Operating revenues per subscriber have increased dramatically over that period, from $208 per year to $273. That is, after taking out all the operating costs, including programming costs, cable operators have increased their take per subscriber by over 30 percent.

[...] The ability of cable operators to raise rates and increase revenues, even with rising programming costs, stems from the market power they have at the point of sale. They would not be able to raise prices and pass program price increases through if they did not have monopoly power.

Consumers’ Union also foreshadows what will happen if another wave of industry consolidation takes hold the way it did over a decade earlier:

While the cable industry has certainly increased capital expenditures to upgrade its plants, it has actually sunk a lot more capital into another activity – mergers and acquisitions.

It is the outrageous prices that have been paid to buy each other out and consolidate the industry that is helping to drive the rate increases. Between 1998, when the first mega merger between cable operators was announced, and 2001, when the last big merger was announced, cable companies spent over a quarter of a trillion dollars buying each other out. In those four years, they spent almost six times as much on mergers and acquisitions as they did on capital expenditures to upgrade their systems. At the same time, the average price paid per subscriber more than doubled.

countries_with_high_speed_broadbandWhen a cable operator pays such an outrageous price, the previous owner is reaping the financial rewards of his monopoly power. The acquiring company can only pay such a high price by assuming that his monopoly power will allow him to continue to increase prices. Monopoly power is being bought and sold and borrowed against. The new cable operator, who has paid for market power, may insist that the debt he has incurred to obtain it is a real cost on his books. That may be correct in the literal sense (he owes someone that money) but that does not make it right, or the abuse of market power legal.

Fast-forwarding to 2014, economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy said the same basic economic truths still exist today with Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable.

“My concern is the merger and the consolidation of the cable and internet delivery system for consumers and what will happen to internet and cable rates and choices,” Maxcy said, voicing his hesitancy about a deal that merges the nation’s two largest cable providers. “As that industry has gotten more consolidated over time, we have seen rates go up. The answer from them is that we’ve got more choices. Are we better off or not better off? I don’t know, but certainly rates have gone up at a much faster rate than the inflation rate. The result of more monopoly power is always higher prices and less choices and it seems that this merger moves in that direction.”

“The threat from non-network content providers is a concern for the cable industry,” Maxcy added.

“We’re moving to a situation where we don’t need cable, but we still need the internet and the cable companies are the ones that have control of that,” he said. “Consolidating them together makes them more competitive against the outside forces, but the other argument makes the whole thing less competitive so they’ll have more ability to control the access to Netflix, YouTube and the like. People that may develop other similar sorts of services will have a hard time getting the access they would like to purchase those.”

Chris Stigall spoke with economist and Temple professor Joel Maxcy on Talk Radio 1210 WPHT in Philadelphia about Comcast’s attempt to purchase Time Warner Cable and what that means for consumers. Feb. 18, 2014 (12:10)
You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

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Comcast: Usage-Based Billing for All Customers Within 5 Years; ‘We’re Also Allowed to Do Fast Lanes’

comcast highwayComcast will introduce usage-based billing on all of its broadband customers nationwide within five years, whether they like it or not.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen told Variety he predicts the new usage limit will likely be 350GB a month but could increase to 500GB in 2019. Cohen claims consumers in usage-capped test markets prefer a preset usage limit and an overlimit fee of $10 for each additional 50GB of usage.

But Stop the Cap! has learned at no time has Comcast surveyed customers about whether they want their Internet usage metered or capped. That question is evidently not an option.

If Time Warner Cable territories are merged under the Comcast brand, usage billing would likely immediately follow.

Usage caps will go a long way to protect Comcast’s cable television package from online video, which if viewed in significant amounts could put customers over their monthly usage limit and subject them to higher fees.

“We’re trying to go slowly, not out of a regulatory concern (but because) we have no desire to blow up our high-speed data business,” he said.

cohenIf the merger is approved, Comcast will face significantly less competition in many Verizon service areas also served by Time Warner Cable. Verizon FiOS expansion has ended and the company continues to de-emphasize its DSL service, which is the only broadband competition Time Warner Cable faces in many upstate New York and western Massachusetts communities.

An unrepentant Cohen also doubled down on paid prioritization — Internet fast lanes — declaring regardless of what the FCC decides on Net Neutrality, Comcast still has the right to offer paid prioritization to customers.

“Whatever it is, we are allowed to do it,” said Cohen, speaking at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in New York. “We are not sure we know what paid prioritization, or what a fast lane, is. Fast lane sounds bad… (but) I believe that whatever it is, it has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years.”

The way Comcast’s lawyers read “Title II,” even if the FCC declares broadband ISPs to be common carriers, Cohen says Comcast will go right on selling prioritized access, claiming Title II doesn’t prohibit paid prioritization — indeed, he said, “the whole history” of Title II is that carriers are allowed to provide different levels of service at different prices, reports Variety.

Cohen said he expects Washington regulators will promptly approve the company’s buyout of Time Warner Cable with no delays, insisting the deal is “not that difficult” in terms of antitrust implications.

 

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FCC Chairman Promises “New and Improved” Net Neutrality Proposal That Is More of the Same

Phillip "Section 706 is a road to nowhere" Dampier

Phillip “Section 706 is a road to nowhere” Dampier

After thousands of consumers joined more than 100 Internet companies and two of five commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission to complain about Chairman Tom Wheeler’s vision of Net Neutrality, the head of the FCC claims he has revised his proposal to better enforce Internet traffic equality.

Last week, huge online companies like Amazon, eBay, and Facebook jointly called Wheeler’s ideas of Net Neutrality “a grave threat to the Internet.”

In response over the weekend, an official close to the chairman leaked word to the Wall Street Journal that Wheeler was changing his proposal. Despite that, a closer examination of Wheeler’s ideas continues to show his unwavering faith in providers voluntarily behaving themselves. Wheeler’s evolving definition of Net Neutrality is fine… if you live in OppositeLand. His proposal would allow Internet Service Providers and content companies to negotiate paid traffic prioritization agreements — the exact opposite of Net Neutrality — allowing certain Internet traffic to race to the front of the traffic line.

Such an idea is a non-starter among Net Neutrality advocates, precisely because it undermines a core principle of the Open Internet — discriminating for or against certain web traffic because of a paid arrangement creates an unfair playing field likely to harm Internet start-ups and other independent entities that can’t afford the “pay to play” prices ISPs may seek.

Paid traffic prioritization agreements only make business sense when a provider creates the network conditions that require their consideration. If a provider operated a robust network with plenty of capacity, there would be no incentive for such agreements because Internet traffic would have no trouble reaching customers with or without the agreement.

But as Netflix customers saw earlier this year, Comcast and several other cable operators are now in the bandwidth shortage business — unwilling to keep up investments in network upgrades required to allow paying customers to access the Internet content they want.

While there is some argument that the peering agreement between Comcast and Netflix is not a classic case of smashing Net Neutrality, the effect on customers is the same. If a provider refuses to upgrade connections to the Internet without financial compensation from content companies, the Internet slow lane for that content emerges. Message: Sign a paid contract for a better connection and your clogged content will suddenly arrive with ease.

net-neutrality-protestWheeler has ineffectively argued that his proposal to allow these kinds of paid arrangements do not inherently commercially segregate the Internet into fast and slow lanes.

But in fact it will, not by artificially throttling the speeds of deprioritized, non-paying content companies, but by consigning them to increasingly congested broadband pipes that only work in top form for prioritized, first class traffic.

With Wheeler’s philosophy “unchanged” according to the Journal, his defense of his revised Net Neutrality proposal continues to rely on non germane arguments.

For example, Wheeler claims he will make sure the FCC “scrutinizes deals to make sure that the broadband providers don’t unfairly put nonpaying companies’ content at a disadvantage.” But in Wheeler’s World of Net Neutrality, providers would have to blatantly and intentionally throttle traffic to cross the line.

“I won’t allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service,” Mr. Wheeler wrote (emphasis ours) to Google and other companies.

But if your access to YouTube is slow because Google won’t pay Comcast for a direct connection with the cable company, it is doubtful Wheeler’s proposal would ever consider that a clear-cut case of Comcast “forcing” customers into a “slow lane.” After all, Comcast itself isn’t interfering with Netflix traffic, it just isn’t provisioning enough room on its network to accommodate customer demand.

Another side issue nobody has mentioned is usage cap discrimination. Comcast exempts certain traffic from the usage cap it is gradually reintroducing around the country. Its preferred partners can avoid usage-deterring caps while those not aligned with Comcast are left on the meter.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Some equipment manufacturers are producing even more sophisticated traffic management technology that could make it very difficult to identify fast and slow lanes, yet still opens the door to further monetization of Internet usage and performance in favor of a provider’s partners or against their competitors.

With Internet speeds and capacity gradually rising, the need for paid priority traffic agreements should decline, unless providers choose to cut back on upgrades to push another agenda. Already massively profitable, there is no excuse for providers not to incrementally upgrade their networks to meet customer demand. Prices for service have risen, even as the costs of providing the service have dropped overall.

Wheeler seems content to bend over backwards trying to shove a round Net Neutrality framework into a square regulatory black hole. Former chairman Julius Genachowski did the same, pretending that the FCC has oversight authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. But in fact that section is dedicated to expanding broadband access with restricted regulatory powers:

The Commission and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans (including, in particular, elementary and secondary schools and classrooms) by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.

The spirit of the 1996 Telecom Act was  deregulation — that language pertaining to “regulatory forbearance” encourages regulators to restrain themselves from reflexively solving every problem with a new regulation. The words about “removing barriers to infrastructure investment” might as well be industry code language for the inevitable talking point: “deregulation removes barriers to investment.”

1nnWith a shaky foundation like that, any effort by the FCC to depend on Section 706 as its enabling authority to oversee the introduction of any significant broadband regulation is a house of cards.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed. In the Verizon network management case, the court found that the FCC was not allowed to use Section 706 to issue broad regulations that contradicted another part of the Communications Act.

U.S.C. 153(51) was and remains the FCC’s Section 706-Achilles Heel and the judge kicked it. This section of the Act says “a telecommunications carrier shall be treated as a common carrier under this [Act] only to the extent that it is engaged in providing telecommunications services.”

The current president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) Michael Powell — coincidentally also former chairman of the FCC under President George W. Bush — helped see to it that broadband was not defined as a “telecommunications service.” Instead, it is considered an “information service” for regulatory purposes. This decision shielded emerging Internet providers (especially big phone and cable companies) from the kinds of traditional telecom utility regulations landline telephone companies lived with for decades. Of course, millions were also spent to lobby the telecom deregulation-friendly Clinton and Bush administrations with the idea to adopt “light touch” broadband regulatory policy. A Republican-dominated FCC had no trouble voluntarily limiting its own authority to oversee broadband by declaring both wired and wireless broadband providers “information services.”

Tom Wheeler is the former president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association

Tom Wheeler is the former president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association

So it was the FCC itself that caused this regulatory mess. But the Supreme Court provided a way out, by declaring it was within the FCC’s own discretion to decide how to regulate broadband, either under Title I as an information service or Title II as a telecommunications service. If the FCC declares broadband as a telecommunications service, the regulatory headaches largely disappear. The FCC has well-tested authority to impose common carrier regulations on providers, including Net Neutrality protections, under Title II.

In fact, the very definition of “common carrier” is tailor-made for Net Neutrality because it generally requires that all customers be offered service on a standardized and non-discriminatory basis, and may include a requirement that those services be priced reasonably.

Inexplicably, Chairman Wheeler last week announced his intention to keep ignoring the straight-line GPS-like directions from the court that would snatch the FCC’s attorneys from the jaws of defeat to victory and has recalculated another proposed trip over Section 706′s mysterious bumpy side streets and dirt roads. Assuming the FCC ever arrives at its destination, it is a sure bet it will be met by attorneys from AT&T, Comcast, or Verizon with yet more lawsuits claiming the FCC has violated their rights by exceeding their authority.

Wheeler also doesn’t mollify anyone with his commitment to set up yet another layer of FCC bureaucracy to protect Internet start-ups:

Mr. Wheeler’s updated draft would also propose a new ombudsman position with ‘significant enforcement authority’ to advocate on behalf of startups, according to one of the officials. The goal would be to ensure all parties have access to the FCC’s process for resolving disputes.

Anyone who has taken a dispute to the FCC knows how fun and exciting a process that is. But even worse than the legal expense and long delays, Wheeler’s excessively ambiguous definitions of what constitutes fair paid prioritization and slow and fast lanes is money in the bank for regulatory litigators that will sue when a company doesn’t get the resolution it wants.

Wheeler promises the revised proceeding will invite more comments from the public regarding whether paid prioritization is a good idea and whether Title II reclassification is the better option. While we appreciate the fact Wheeler is asking the questions, we’ve been too often disappointed by FCC chairmen that apply prioritization of a different sort — to those that routinely have business before the FCC, including phone and cable company executives. Chairman Genachowski’s Net Neutrality policy was largely drafted behind closed doors by FCC lawyers and telecom industry lobbyists. Consumers were not invited and we’re not certain the FCC is actually listening to us.

The Wall Street Journal indicates the road remains bumpy and pitted with potholes:

Mr. Wheeler’s insistence that his strategy would preserve an open Internet, without previously offering much insight into how, has been a source of disquiet within his agency. Of the five-member commission, both Republicans are against any form of net neutrality rules, which they view as unnecessary. Commission observers will be watching the reaction of the two Democrats, Ms. Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, to Mr. Wheeler’s new language.

“There is a wide feeling on the eighth floor that this is a debacle and I think people would like to see a change of course,” said another FCC official. “We may not agree on the course, but we agree the road we’re on is to disaster.”

There is still time to recalculate, but we wonder if Mr. Wheeler, a longtime former lobbyist for the wireless and cable industries, is capable of sufficiently bending towards the public interest.

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Sprint Applying Speed Breaks to Top 5% of Wireless Data Users Accessing Congested Cell Sites

throttleEffective June 1st, all Sprint contract and prepaid customers, as well as those using Virgin Mobile USA and Boost will find their wireless data speeds throttled if Sprint finds they are among the top 5% of users on a congested cell site.

Text messages are being sent to all customers about Sprint’s new “fairness algorithm” that it will use as part of its data “prioritization management.”

“Beginning 6/1/14, to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times, Sprint/Virgin Mobile USA/Boost may manage prioritization of access to network resources in congested areas for customers within the top 5 percent of data users.”

Such text messages are unlikely to be understood by average customers who have no idea how much data they use, don’t understand what “prioritization of access” means, or what would make them a “top 5 percent” data user. What many do understand is that they were sold “unlimited use” plans that will be much harder to use if they are identified as a 5%‘r.

Fierce Wireless found answers to several unanswered questions:

  • Boost and Virgin customers exceeding 2.5GB of data use a month used to find their data speeds cut to 256kbps until the beginning of their next billing cycle. In March, Sprint announced it was further cutting speeds in the punishment zone to 128kbps for affected prepaid customers;
  • Sprint’s postpaid/prepaid customers are likely to find themselves throttled once they exceed 5GB of usage per month.

speedbumpSprint says the throttle will only be activated on “congested cell sites” and will impact WiMAX, 3G and LTE 4G networks owned by the company. Anyone who has used Sprint’s 3G network will discover most urban and suburban Sprint cell towers are frequently congested, judging by the low speeds many customers endure. Rural customers or those served on the edge of a suburban area may never find themselves throttled and Sprint promises once traffic clears, the throttle is shut off.

At the same time, once Sprint labels you a “heavy user,” they can leave you in the penalty box for up to 60 days because the network prioritization will also apply during the following month of service.

“Customers that continue to fall within the top 5 percent of data users will continue to be subject to prioritization,” Sprint said.

The approach “will enable us to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times,” Sprint said in a statement sent to FierceWirelessTech.

Other wireless carriers also have employed speed throttling to control their grandfathered “unlimited data” customers, Fierce Wireless notes:

During September 2011, Verizon Wireless implemented what it  termed a “network optimization” plan to limit the bandwidth for the operator’s top 5 percent of 3G smartphone users who are on a grandfathered unlimited data plan. (Ed. Note: However, because of FCC requirements, Verizon cannot throttle its 4G LTE customers.)

One month later, AT&T Mobility  instituted a similar plan, targeting the top 5 percent of users on unlimited plans in specific high-traffic locations. However, AT&T was forced to alter its approach in early 2012 after an outcry from users who were unprepared to have their speeds reduced, particularly in cases where some of them had only consumed 2 GB of data. AT&T’s revised policy slowed speeds of unlimited data users who exceeded specific data thresholds.

T-Mobile US also uses a form of prioritization, noting “certain T-Mobile plans may be prioritized” over service plans under its GoSmart Mobile prepaid brand.

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Comcast Promises Wonderland of Broadband Ecstacy if Time Warner Cable Deal Goes Through

Neil Smit, CEO Comcast Cable (left), Ryan Lawler, TechCrunch (right)

Neil Smit, CEO, Comcast Cable (left), Ryan Lawler, TechCrunch (right)

Of all the tech companies to turn up at TechCrunch’s Disrupt New York 2014 event, Comcast Cable seemed the least likely to qualify as the kind of innovative start-up TechCrunch loves to cover.

But there sat Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit with TechCrunch’s Ryan Lawler, discussing Comcast’s mega-merger with Time Warner Cable, its peering agreement with Netflix, broadcast TV streamer Aereo, and Comcast’s legendary dismal customer service.

Smit’s arrival on stage to a smattering of tentative applause was a clear sign there was no love for the cable giant in the audience, particularly from many New York area Time Warner Cable customers dreading a future with Comcast.

Smit was immediately confronted with the fact Comcast was recently voted the Worst Company in America by Consumerist readers, prompting yet another promise that improving customer service was Comcast’s “top priority,” the same promise Comcast gave in 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013.

“I think if there’s one thing to disrupt in our business, it’s customer service,” Smit added.

Smit defended Comcast’s merger with Time Warner, relying heavily on video subscribers to downplay the concentrated market power Comcast would have after the merger. Smit pointed out Netflix has the largest subscriber count of any pay television channel or platform and denied Lawler’s contention that a merger would give Comcast more than 50% of the American broadband market.

“I think the number is a little less than that — it is closer to 40% but if you include wireless than it would be less than 20%,” Smit responded, referring to the LTE 4G wireless networks from wireless carriers that come with very low usage caps and very high prices.

Comcast-LogoSmit also promised major broadband speed upgrades and other improvements for Time Warner Cable customers, but nobody mentioned Comcast’s gradual reintroduction of usage caps on residential broadband accounts.

Comcast Cable’s CEO also addressed several other hot button issues:

Smit claimed Comcast has a good working relationship with the FCC and is providing advice on whatever changes to Net Neutrality FCC chairman Tom Wheeler will propose later this month.

Despite the fact Comcast could ultimately benefit if Aereo is found to be legal by the U.S. Supreme Court, Smit recognized Comcast also owns NBC and other broadcast programmers and was concerned about the economic impact if cable operators stopped paying for over-the-air programming.

“We pay $9 billion a year for content,” Smit said. “One of the things that I question in the Aereo solution is: are they paying for content? The spend for that content has to come from somewhere.”

Smit also noted Comcast is increasingly targeting younger audiences by signing deals with college campuses to bring Comcast service to students to hook them as future subscribers. Comcast is also creating new packages with fewer channels to appeal to millennials. Smit also acknowledged many younger family members are accessing cable programming using passwords associated with their parent’s cable account.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TechCrunch Interview with Neil Smit 5-6-14.mp4

Here is the complete interview TechCrunch conducted with Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit. (22:20)

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Zain Bahrain vs. AT&T/Verizon: See How Much You’re Getting Gouged for 4G LTE Service

zain 4g

This week, mobile customers in Bahrain can now sign up for uncongested, ultra-fast 4G LTE broadband packages that include 120GB of usage and a free LTE router or MiFi device, all priced less than what AT&T and Verizon Wireless charge for just 1GB of mobile broadband and the cost of the device to use it.

att verizonZain Bahrain began offering mobile broadband packages this week that start at under $32 a month. For video lovers and downloaders, the company charges $53 a month for up to 120GB of usage at speeds up to 25Mbps, equipment included at no extra charge. Customers upgrading to 250GB or 1000GB usage allowances also get much faster performance on the company’s LTE network — up to 100Mbps.

Customers that exceed those usage allowances are not billed overlimit fees. Their speeds are temporarily throttled to a still-usable 2-4Mbps, depending on the chosen plan. There is a 4GB daily usage limit.

In the United States, AT&T customers pay $50 a month for a DataConnect plan offering up to 5GB of usage, with a $10/GB overlimit fee. A smartphone customer pays a combined $65 a month for a 1GB plan and device fee.

A Verizon Wireless customer pays $50 as month for a shared data plan offering a 4GB data allowance and includes the monthly device fee. A smartphone customer pays $80 a month ($70 if on Verizon’s Edge plan) for a 1GB plan and device fee.

“We are delighted that we are leveraging the investment in our new network to benefit our customers with new offers,” said Zain Bahrain’s enterprise broadband products and services manager Mohammed Al Alawi. “Today’s broadband customers are bandwidth hungry, with diverse connectivity needs; our new 4G LTE broadband packages are custom-designed to meet these needs and enable a digital lifestyle like never before.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Why should you switch to 4G LTE with Zain 2014.mp4

Zain produced this English language video to introduce its 4G LTE service offering speeds up to 100Mbps in Kuwait. Unlike in the United States, generous usage allowances from Zain make wireless broadband a prospect for Internet users in the home and on the go. (2:20)

 

 

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Tom Wheeler: The Neville Chamberlain of the Internet; More Big Telecom Appeasement

Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, 1937-1940

Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, 1937-1940

“If you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.” — Neville Chamberlain, 1938

Another day, another damage control effort from FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, still reeling from days of criticism in response to his plan to revisit the issue of Net Neutrality next month.

In a lengthy blog post, Wheeler still believes it’s all a big misunderstanding:

“Some recent commentary has had a misinformed interpretation of the Open Internet Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) currently before the Commission,” writes Wheeler. “There are two things that are important to understand.  First, this is not a final decision by the Commission but rather a formal request for input on a proposal as well as a set of related questions.  Second, as the Notice makes clear, all options for protecting and promoting an Open Internet are on the table.”

Except they are not.

Wheeler channels former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain by declaring a deep desire for “peace in our time” with half-measures instead of direct confrontation with Big Telecom interests.

“I believe this process will put us on track to have tough, enforceable Open Internet rules on the books in an expeditious manner, ending a decade of uncertainty and litigation,” Wheeler declares. “The idea of Net Neutrality (or the Open Internet) has been discussed for a decade with no lasting results. Today Internet Openness is being decided on an ad hoc basis by big companies. Further delay will only exacerbate this problem.”

The troubles with Net Neutrality are a problem of the agency’s own making and its leadership’s utter failure to show courage in the face of Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T’s power and influence. Former FCC chairman Michael Powell (now top cable industry lobbyist) created the problem when he invented a classification for broadband as an “information service” out of thin air without any clear authority. At the heart of Powell’s “policy statement” were four basic Internet principles:

  1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
  2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

net_neutralityPowell’s principles stood as long as the FCC’s policies moved in lock-step with the telecommunications industry. When the FCC strayed from industry talking points and started showing some enforcement teeth, some of the same telecom companies that send the FCC cupcakes took them to court.

Former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski who insisted the FCC had authority over broadband because he said so believed the best way forward was to involve the industry in the development of Net Neutrality policies they could live with. After multiple private phone conversations and closed-door meetings, companies like Verizon helped write the guidelines for protecting the Open Internet and then, after they were implemented, sued the FCC in federal court.

“We are deeply concerned by the FCC’s assertion of broad authority for sweeping new regulation of broadband networks and the Internet itself,” said Michael E. Glover, Verizon’s senior vice president and deputy general counsel. “We believe this assertion of authority goes well beyond any authority provided by Congress, and creates uncertainty for the communications industry, innovators, investors and consumers.”

That’s gratitude for you, and it wasn’t the first time.

Phillip "Your Wallet=Czechoslovakia" Dampier

Phillip “Your Wallet = Czechoslovakia” Dampier

In 2010, an exasperated D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals didn’t exactly encounter Perry Mason when the FCC legal team showed up to defend its order demanding Comcast cease throttling broadband traffic. When the FCC threatened to fine Comcast, the cable company sued claiming the FCC had no authority over how they run their broadband business. Commission lawyer Austin C. Schlick delivered a less-than-robust defense of the FCC’s scheme.

“If I’m going to lose I would like to lose more narrowly,” Schlick confided. “But above all, we want guidance from this Court so that when we do this rule-making, if we decide rules are appropriate we’d like to know what we need to do to establish jurisdiction.”

Justice A. Raymond Randolph had none of it.

“We don’t give guidance,” Randolph grumbled, “we decide cases.” The FCC lost.

Legal experts already knew the FCC was on thin ice.  First, the Powell’s statement was never codified by the Commission’s own rulemaking procedure.  Second, the Commission framed the broadband policy as a set of “guidelines,” a term considered legally vague.  Third, the FCC relied on the concept of “ancillary” authority — borrowing regulatory authority from so-called “policy statements” coming from Congress, to claim jurisdiction.

DC Circuit Court

DC Circuit Court

So it should come as no surprise that the same framework declared invalid when the FCC tried to spank Comcast was just as useless in shoring up the FCC’s authority to enforce Net Neutrality.

U.S. Circuit Judge David Tatel, writing for a three-judge panel, said that while the FCC has the power to regulate Verizon and other broadband companies, it chose the wrong legal framework for its open-Internet regulations.

“Given that the commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the commission from nonetheless regulating them as such,” Tatel wrote.

Judge Tatel could not have been more clear. In his second ruling, he noted the FCC’s ongoing resistance to reclassify broadband service under the well-grounded definition of a “telecommunications service” is at the heart of the problem.

But Wheeler, like his immediate predecessor Julias Genachowski, still stubbornly grips Powell’s flawed framework like a life-preserver off the Titanic:

The FCC promises Verizon it won't do it again

The FCC promises Verizon they won’t have to sue again.

I am concerned that acting in a manner that ignores the Verizon court’s guidance, or opening an entirely new approach, invites delay that could tack on multiple more years before there are Open Internet rules in place.  We are asking for comment on a proposed a course of action that could result in an enforceable rule rather than continuing the debate over our legal authority that has so far produced nothing of permanence for the Internet.

I do not believe we should leave the market unprotected for multiple more years while lawyers for the biggest corporate players tie the FCC’s protections up in court.  Notwithstanding this, all regulatory options remain on the table. If the proposal before us now turns out to be insufficient or if we observe anyone taking advantage of the rule, I won’t hesitate to use Title II. However, unlike with Title II, we can use the court’s roadmap to implement Open Internet regulation now rather than endure additional years of litigation and delay.

Here is some news Wheeler can use: No matter what policies the FCC enacts or how, if they run contrary to the interests of Big Telecom companies, they will sue anyway. Net Neutrality appeasement by collaboration did not stop Verizon from promptly suing the FCC to overturn in court the rules the company helped write.

Wheeler needs to deal his reclassification card or get out of the game. It is increasingly clear it is the only legal basis under which the Court of Appeals will readily accept the FCC’s authority to oversee broadband.

Wheeler has his own set of Powell-like principles – the Four No-No’s of the Net:

Let me be clear, however, as to what I believe is not “commercially reasonable” on the Internet:

  • Something that harms consumers is not commercially reasonable. For instance, degrading service in order to create a new “fast lane” would be shut down.

  • Something that harms competition is not commercially reasonable. For instance, degrading overall service so as to force consumers and content companies to a higher priced tier would be shut down.

  • Providing exclusive, prioritized service to an affiliate is not commercially reasonable. For instance, a broadband provider that also owns a sports network should not be able to give a commercial advantage to that network over another competitive sports network wishing to reach viewers over the Internet.

  • Something that curbs the free exercise of speech and civic engagement is not commercially reasonable. For instance, if the creators of new Internet content or services had to seek permission from ISPs or pay special fees to be seen online such action should be shut down.

But there are plenty of loopholes in Wheeler’s proposals. First, “degrading service” goes undefined. As we’ve seen recently, there is a difference between purposely throttling a broadband connection and not maintaining and upgrading it to handle growing traffic. Second, Wheeler’s idea of what is “commercially reasonable” is not defined either. A provider could make all of its owned sports networks exempt from usage caps. That is neither “exclusive” or “prioritized.” It just doesn’t count against your usage allowance. Third, you might have open access to all of this content but won’t want it because your provider’s preferred partners get faster and more responsive service and less waiting for pages or videos to load.

Wheeler’s apparent naiveté about this industry and its behavior is beyond belief considering the decades he worked on behalf of the cable and wireless industry. Netflix foreshadows an Internet future without robust Net Neutrality. Verizon, Comcast and others ignore complaints about the degrading performance of Netflix, refusing to upgrade their connections of behalf of paying customers, until Netflix also agrees to pay them. When Netflix drops a check in the mail, the problem disappears. It doesn’t seem to matter that customers paying a very high price for Internet service cannot get the service they deserve unless someone else also pays.

If we can see this problem, it is extraordinarily curious why Wheeler cannot (or will not). Wheeler’s tough talk is cheap, but American broadband is not. Without direct action that reclassifies broadband as a telecommunications service, nothing Wheeler proposes or gets enacted is likely to survive the next inevitable court challenge.

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Cable Industry Mulls Its Options: Usage-Based Billing or Content Provider-Pays Pricing Models

cable showCable industry executives on hand at this year’s Cable Show in Los Angeles are debating whether Netflix has taught the cable industry some important lessons about how to treat its online video competition.

Phil Lind, executive vice president of regulatory affairs at Rogers Communications called Comcast’s peering deal with Netflix a groundbreaking breakthrough on how the Internet will be treated in the future.

Netflix has been forced to compensate the cable and telephone companies for its reliance on their broadband pipes to reach customers.

Mike Fries, president and CEO of Liberty Global said the issue of Net Neutrality relates primarily to online video and the discussion will inevitably come down to choosing between providing a broadband fast lane for content producers willing to pay or adopting usage-based billing that compensates the industry for the growth of streaming video.

Several on the panel disagreed with the contention that Netflix has outmaneuvered the cable industry with a superior on-screen interface and better on-demand content. But Fries said Netflix has achieved more success than the industry’s own TV Everywhere initiative, which unlocks online content for authenticated, paying cable TV subscribers. In addition to unwieldy authentication systems that pester subscribers with frequent log-in demands, content rights issues still dramatically limit the amount of streamed video available from TV Everywhere platforms.

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Protection Money: Verizon Next to Collect Tribute from Netflix for Trouble-Free Streaming

netflixpaywallNetflix has reached an agreement with Verizon Communications for a paid-peering interconnection between the two that will help assure Verizon’s broadband customers can watch Netflix content without repeated buffering slowdowns.

It is the second major deal for Netflix where money has changed hands to assure a more error-free experience for customers, coming two months after a similar deal with Comcast.

Both Verizon and AT&T have told their respective shareholders they anticipate new revenue streams from interconnection agreements with Netflix, which now constitutes a large percentage of evening Internet traffic in the United States.

By establishing a more direct connection between Netflix and Verizon, customers should experience fewer streaming problems. Netflix traditionally pays third parties to handle its traffic and some of those shared connections have grown increasingly overcongested. ISPs are becoming increasingly reluctant to upgrade them without financial compensation.

The FCC does not consider peering arrangements part of the Net Neutrality controversy, but for customers the result is the same — without a financial arrangement with a provider, content from certain websites may not be dependably accessible. Earlier this year, Netflix viewing was increasingly disrupted for many Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast customers.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has repeatedly complained Netflix is being subjected to an “arbitrary tax” to assure dependable service to its paying customers. Hastings now wants the FCC to treat the issue as an “end run” around Net Neutrality and include peering agreements and financial compensation issues in the new Net Neutrality rules expected to be introduced in May.

Most analysts do not expect FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler to oppose or regulate the financial arrangements between ISPs and content producers.

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