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Alaska’s GCI Boosts Speeds But Leaves Its Caps and Overlimit Fees Intact

redAlaska-based GCI has rolled out a free upgrade for customers in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Mat-Su Valley, and Sitka that delivers broadband speeds up to 250/10Mbps.

GCI’s re:D broadband used to max out at 200Mbps, but thanks to channel bonding on the cable system, download speeds will be upgraded to 250Mbps in re:D service areas by the end of this year.

But getting 250Mbps broadband is not cheap in Alaska. The service is priced at $174.99 a month when part of a service bundle. Broadband-only customers also pay a $11.99 monthly access fee. Both come with 24-month contracts at that price. Customers who don’t want to be tied down can choose month-to-month service for $5 more per month.

At those prices, one might hope GCI would drop its usage cap, but customers can forget it. A 500GB monthly usage cap applies, with overlimit fees up to $30/GB on some plans.

GCI also announced it would deliver 1Gbps next year over a fiber to the home network under construction in Anchorage, promising “no limits with what you can do with broadband” without mentioning whether it planned usage limits for its fiber service as well.

GCI is asking customers to vote support for their neighborhoods getting fiber upgrades. The more red this map of Anchorage shows, the more customers who have shown support for fiber broadband.

GCI is asking customers to vote support for their neighborhoods getting fiber upgrades. The more red sections of this map of Anchorage shows, the more customers who have shown support for fiber broadband.

For most GCI customers, however, broadband will continue to arrive over the company’s HFC coaxial cable network. To better manage speeds, the company’s DOCSIS 3 platform is bonding eight cable channels, but in re:D areas the company bonds up to 24 cable channels, with plans to increase to 32 channels.

acs logoThe speed increases come after its competitor Alaska Communications announced speed increases of its own. ACS sells unlimited access broadband service at speeds up to 50Mbps. ACS has beefed up its copper infrastructure to support faster Internet speeds, starting with 15Mbps introduced across the state in May. Now customers in Anchorage can subscribe to faster tiers including 30 and 50Mbps.

“Alaskans asked for faster Home Internet, and we’ve responded with these increased speeds, delivered with great customer service and without overage charges,” said ACS president and CEO Anand Vadapalli. “In addition to faster download speeds, customers choosing our product get the highest upload speeds that are so important for sharing videos and gaming.”

ACS has found its unlimited broadband offering attractive to customers who don’t want to worry about GCI’s overlimit fees. ACS also claims its customers get broadband over a dedicated line, not shared infrastructure like GCI, resulting in no speed slowdowns at peak usage times.

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Singapore’s Cutthroat Gigabit Broadband Price War Shows Real Competition Saves Consumers $

bnr_reg_1gbpsThree competing telephone companies in Singapore have launched an all-out price war on gigabit fiber to the home Internet access that shows what real competition can do for broadband pricing.

Last week, M1 took a butcher knife to its monthly rate for 1Gbps service that used to cost $101.75 a month. Today, anyone can order service price-locked for 24 months at a promotional price of $38.65 a month — less than what most cable companies in the United States charge for 10Mbps service. It is the cheapest gigabit plan in Singapore and when the promotion ends, the price may or may not increase to $78 a month. Competitive pressure in Singapore may make M1’s post-promotional price untenable.

Competition is the reason M1 may not be able to raise prices. MyRepublic slashed the price for gigabit service to just under $40 a month in January.

SingaporeSingapore’s largest phone company, SingTel, has its own unlimited gigabit offering for $55.13 a month, a price the company is now re-evaluating.

“We’re happy to see Singapore move towards the 1Gbps standard,” a MyRepublic spokesman said, noting it has no immediate plans to further lower its rates. But it has sweetened its offer by throwing in a free smartphone for every customer signing up for 1Gbps service.

With broadband prices so low, providers are now switching to beefing up extras to entice customers. SingTel promises customers they will never encounter traffic shaping that might cut their broadband speeds when networks get congested. It also offers a 25 percent discount on a virtual private network (VPN) add-on, a common feature used in Singapore to get past geographical restrictions on video streaming. VPN users in Singapore rely on the service to reach Hulu, Netflix and other North American video services that only allow domestic audiences to watch.

A fourth competitor – StarHub – is late to the gigabit battle and is presently working on a revamped offer to be introduced by October. StarHub’s original gigabit broadband offer was expensive at more than $400 a month. That plan has been discontinued.

Wall Street and other trading centers are not happy that falling prices have sliced into telecom profits. Average revenue per user (ARPU) collected by Singapore’s ISPs have dropped 15-20 percent since MyRepublic launched the price war. Investors are being warned that profits will be affected by the robust competition. In Singapore, broadband prices are falling, but so are the costs to provide the service. In North America, it is a much different picture, where a lack of competition has allowed providers to increase prices, constrict usage, and avoid dramatic speed upgrades, even though wholesale broadband costs in North America are among the cheapest in the world.

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Comcast Extends Free 6 Months of Internet Essentials Offer An Extra 10 Days As Regulators Ponder Merger

ieAs regulators ponder Comcast’s application to acquire Time Warner Cable, the issue of affordable Internet has been a hot topic as part of the merger review. So it is no surprise Comcast has announced it is extending its recent offer of six free months of Internet Essentials service to income-challenged families with school age children an extra 10 days.

“On August 4th, we made a special announcement: we are offering any family that has not yet signed up for Internet Essentials, up to six months of free service, if they apply before September 20th,” said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen on Comcast’s blog.  “Today, I’m thrilled to announce we’re going to extend that offer through Tuesday, September 30th.”

Comcast admits that only families that have never applied for Internet Essentials in the past can receive free service. Those already enrolled or who attempted to enroll in the past do not qualify.

The cable company does not make participation easy and is intent on protecting the revenue it earns selling regularly priced Internet service by keeping current customers out of the Internet Essentials program.

Just qualifying for Internet Essentials requires navigating an obstacle course:

The program is only available to households:

  • that have at least one child who is eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program (the “NSLP”) and as confirmed annually while enrolled in the program;
  • do not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment; and
  • have not subscribed to any Comcast Internet service within the last ninety (90) days.
Internet Essentials promises no rate increases, but the fine print suggests otherwise.

Internet Essentials promises no price increases, but the fine print suggests otherwise.

The program will only accept new customers for three full school years. After that, if Comcast decides it doesn’t want to offer the service any longer, customers are out of luck. Comcast can also restrict enrollment periods when it accepts new participants and requires annual verification paperwork demonstrating continued participation in the NSLP.

Comcast can throw families out of the program: if a child relocates outside of the household, loses NSLP eligibility, if a bill is paid late, if Comcast decides to stop offering the program, or if your account is closed. If you move, your account will be closed even if you choose to continue Comcast service at your new address, so don’t plan on going anywhere.

If and when Comcast determines your participation in Internet Essentials is over, your rates will automatically reset to standard Internet pricing without further notice. So much for promises of no rate increases. Those regular prices start at around $40 a month + a monthly modem rental fee of around $8 — quite a difference from $9.95.

Although the terms and conditions do not reflect it, Comcast claims to be continuing an “amnesty program” for would-be applicants with past due balances:

If customers have an outstanding bill that is more than one year old, then as long as they meet all the other eligibility criteria, they can apply to the program and we will provide amnesty for that back due bill for the purpose of connecting to Internet Essentials. If customers’ outstanding bills are less than a year old, however, then we would like them to settle that debt with us before they can be eligible to apply for the program. We are willing to work with families whose debt is reasonable enough that that they could pay us back in installments.

For more information, visit www.internetessentials.com or, for Spanish, www.internetbasico.com. You can also call 1-855-8-INTERNET or, for Spanish, 1-855-SOLO-995.

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Cable Is #1 in Profits: 41% Cash Flow Margin Tops TV, Movies, Music, and Publishing Industries

Phillip Dampier September 17, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Internet Overcharging 2 Comments

eyCable operators leveraged their near-monopoly on high-speed broadband and commercial business services to lead the entertainment and publishing industry in profitability, according to a report from consultant EY (formerly Ernst & Young.)

Cable companies now earn EBITDA (cash flow) margins of 41%, thanks primarily to their broadband divisions. Cable companies have managed to raise prices for Internet access, charge new fees to lease equipment, and monetize broadband usage with usage caps and usage-based billing while their costs to offer broadband service continue to decline rapidly.

“We are seeing that digital is very much driving profits now, instead of disrupting it,” said EY’s Global Media & Entertainment Leader John Nendick. “Companies are figuring out how to monetize the migration of consumers to a variety of digital platforms, and this insatiable demand for content is fueling growth throughout the industry.”

Just a few years ago, cable operators fretted that cord cutting of cable television packages and increased programming costs could take a major bite out of their profitability. But as telephone company broadband competition has waned, cable companies have been able to leverage their near-monopoly on high-speed broadband service with rate increases and usage-control measures that keep costs down and profits up. Customers have also been choosing higher-speed tiers with greater usage allowances at added costs, further increasing profits. The result is more revenue that more than compensates for the loss of profits from cable television.

According to EY, the cable industry will top everyone else in the 2014 survey of the sector. Cash flow margins for other related businesses: cable networks (37%), interactive media (36%), electronic games (29%), conglomerates (26%), satellite television (26%), publishing and information services (21%),  broadcast and network television (19%), film and television production (12%), and music (11%).

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N.Y. Regulators Predict Some Time Warner Customers Will Pay More Than Double to Comcast

Staff at the New York regulator overseeing the state’s telecommunications companies have determined that some Time Warner Cable customers will see their largest rate increase in New York history — more than double their current rate — if Comcast is successful in its bid to acquire Time Warner Cable.

At issue is Time Warner Cable’s heavily promoted ‘buy only what you need’ Every Day Low Price Internet service, which offers 2Mbps service for $14.99 a month.

Comcast has no plans to continue the discount offering, which means Internet customers will pay more than twice as much for Comcast’s cheapest Internet package available to all customers — Economy Plus (3Mbps), priced at $39.99 a month and only available at that price if you also subscribe to Comcast telephone or television service.

Time Warner Cable’s cheapest television package is priced at $8-20 a month. Comcast’s least-expensive TV package costs $17-20 a month.

“Time Warner’s lowest-priced offerings… represent choices for New York consumers,” Public Service Commission staff wrote in an Aug. 8 filing in the case, noted Albany’s Times-Union. “Any loss of these services would likely result in consumers paying more.”

Comcast denies it will raise prices for New Yorkers or any other Time Warner Cable customer, but noted it needs to study the “significant competition that it faces” before making any decisions on prices. When Comcast discovers Verizon FiOS isn’t providing much of a competitive threat in areas unreached after Verizon stalled its expansion efforts and AT&T U-verse and other telco broadband offerings cannot keep up with cable broadband speeds, they might assume they don’t face that much competition after all.

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Wi-Fi is Threatening AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ 4G Data Money Party; Wi-Fi Usage Conquers 4G

att verizonVerizon Wireless and AT&T have invested billions expanding and improving their wireless networks, telling investors that revenue from exploding wireless data usage would more than recoup their investments, but the growing availability of low-cost and free Wi-Fi is threatening to derail those plans.

Business Week reports that as carriers have dropped unlimited use data plans in favor of costly, restricted-usage offers, savvy customers have learned to conserve their data allowance by switching to Wi-Fi wherever possible. Adobe Systems reported this week that more than half of all wireless data traffic from smartphones occurs over Wi-Fi, not 3G or 4G networks. Total Wi-Fi traffic passed mobile data networks more than a year earlier.

AT&T and Verizon’s business plans depend on smartphone users accessing faster 4G LTE networks to consume high bandwidth online applications like video streaming, but that isn’t happening at the rate they expected. Instead, customers are waiting to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot before watching.

The carriers are partly to blame for the Wi-Fi habit by encouraging customers to switch to Wi-Fi to reduce congestion on their 3G and 4G networks while they were upgraded and expanded. But after carriers completed those upgrades, customers are sticking with Wi-Fi.

“There’s a flavor of too much of a good thing here, where Wi-Fi offloads start to really impinge on the prospects of monetizing all that additional usage,” says industry analyst Craig Moffett. “All the carriers have put their eggs in the basket of incremental usage as the source of revenue growth. It isn’t going according to plan.”

wifiAT&T and Verizon hoped customers would face upgrades to more costly plans with more generous usage allowances as data usage increased. Early efforts to monetize data usage seemed encouraging. Both carriers reported surprising success from in-store marketing efforts to push families to upgrade to deluxe 10GB+ usage plans in larger numbers than anticipated. But customers are now increasingly trying to stay within their budget and current usage allowance, with the help of Wi-Fi.

‘As customers become more aware of the limits on their data plans, they’re more careful about moving to Wi-Fi as often as possible,’ says Tamara Gaffney, an analyst with Adobe’s Digital Index.

Wi-Fi hotspots are easier to find as cable companies provide them for their customers. Major shopping, dining and entertainment venues often offer free access to draw and keep customers.

As carriers began to realize smartphones would not be the data sucking vampires they were expecting, both AT&T and Verizon eagerly dove into the tablet business, hoping to convince customers to buy mobile-ready versions of the devices that would more likely be used for data allowance-killing online video.

But customers outsmarted them again, preferring tablets equipped only with Wi-Fi. Carriers responded by slashing prices, to no avail. Even those who splurged on 3G and 4G-ready tablets rarely use them on AT&T and Verizon’s wireless networks. More than 93% of tablet traffic is done over Wi-Fi, derailing a potential wireless data money train.

onstarTheir latest plan is to push the “Internet of Things” — machine to machine communications. Both AT&T and Verizon have invested heavily in wireless utility meter technology and are pushing manufacturers to add 4G capability to all sorts of home appliances from refrigerators, ovens, and dishwashers to home laundry centers, alarm systems, and even pet-webcams. But early efforts have not been promising. Reception in fixed indoor locations, especially basements, is often very poor to non-existent, and manufacturers don’t see much benefit adding mobile network connectivity when traditional Wi-Fi is cheaper and much more reliable.

That hasn’t stopped AT&T, which won a lucrative contract to offer 4G LTE and/or HSPA+ support inside Audi and GM vehicles. To them, the “connected car” is a cash cow waiting to be milked.

“Five or six years ago when we talked to car OEMs, it was about safety and embedded modules and cheap rates,” said Glenn Lurie, CEO of AT&T Mobility.

That was the era of OnStar and other competing telematics systems that can monitor vehicle performance and notify emergency responders in the event of an accident. Verizon Wireless has supported GM’s OnStar system for years and until GM’s bankruptcy reorganization offered Verizon customers the option of adding their OnStar speakerphone to a Verizon Wireless family plan for $9.99 a month, sharing that plan’s voice calling minutes. Starting this year, AT&T has the contract.

AT&T is celebrating the end of cheap rates and see big dollar signs selling in-car connectivity, which will be available in dozens of car models.

Mary Chan from GM committed to offer AT&T 4G access on 33 GM model vehicles by the end of this year.

Customers will get a free sample of the service in promotions lasting from 30-90 days. After that, customers will need to pay:

  • OnStar’s data plan (doesn’t include voice calling/emergency response) will cost $10 a month to add the car as a device on your AT&T Mobile Share plan and $10 a month for 200MB of data; $30 a month for 3GB of data, or $50 a month for 5GB;
  • Applicable taxes and federal/state universal service charges, regulatory cost recovery charge (up to $1.25), gross receipts surcharge, administrative fees and other government assessments which are not taxes or government required charges are not included in the above-stated prices;
  • A $5 day pass will be available for occasional users providing 250MB of access for up to 24 hours;
  • All payments must be made in advance of receiving service and will be automatically renewed month-by-month until the customer cancels;
  • The built-in Wi-Fi hotspot will support up to seven devices;
  • Excessive roaming may result in service termination.

“The connected car will change the entire wireless industry,” said AT&T Mobility’s Ralph de la Vega. AT&T expects as many as 10 million connected cars will be signed up for service in just a few years.

But at AT&T’s prices, Moffett suspects the ingenuity of Silicon Valley and other entrepreneurs will eventually find a much cheaper solution, potentially robbing AT&T of yet another expected cash coup.

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AT&T U-verse Customers Can Escape AT&T’s Usage Caps With DSL Extreme’s trueSTREAM

dsl extremeThere is a way out for AT&T U-verse customers stuck dealing with the company’s arbitrary 250GB monthly usage cap — sign up with U-verse reseller DSL Extreme for the same Internet access with no usage caps whatsoever.

Today, DSL Extreme announced the introduction of trueSTREAM in 21 states serviced by AT&T’s U-verse fiber to the neighborhood system. Much like Earthlink’s reseller agreement with Time Warner Cable, customers can transparently switch between the two providers and receive essentially the same service at a different price point.

The biggest selling point of trueSTREAM is that it has absolutely no usage limits.

DSL Extreme has signed a contract with AT&T to offer the service in states including California, Texas, Illinois, and Florida, among many others.

Customers don’t need to have a phone line to subscribe. They will need to lease a wireless gateway router ($6.50/mo) from DSL Extreme and the rate plans are similar to AT&T’s own U-verse broadband offerings:

  • truestreamValue ($17.95/mo) 768/384kbps
  • Plus ($22.95/mo) 1.5Mbps/384kbps
  • Pro ($27.95/mo) 3Mbps/512kbps
  • Elite ($32.95/mo) 6Mbps/768kbps
  • Max ($37.95/mo) 12/1Mbps
  • Max Plus ($42.95/mo) 18/1.5Mbps
  • Max Turbo ($52.95/mo) 24/3Mbps
  • Power ($62.95/mo) 45/6Mbps
  • Power Plus ($92.95/mo) 75/8Mbps

Professional installation is now free of charge and an optional one-year contract delivers other extras, such as a static IP address. A Supplier Surcharge Recovery fee of $2.88 per month applies. Customers can pre-qualify on the company’s website.

The coverage area of trueSTREAM will extend the company’s reach overnight to 30 million potential customer locations, growing to nearly 60 million by 2015.

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

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

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

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

faster speed fewer competitors

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

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

Wheeler

Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Bell’s Efforts to Take Bell Aliant Private Will Divert $160 Million in Expansion Funds to Shareholders

Bell-Aliant-FibreOP

Bell Aliant’s FibreOp fiber to the home service may suffer as Bell/BCE redirects upgrade investments into shareholder dividend payouts.

Bell Aliant customers in Atlantic Canada won’t benefit from Bell Canada’s (BCE) efforts to take subsidiary Bell Aliant, Inc. private unless they happen to be shareholders.

In July, Bell Canada Enterprises announced its intention to privatize Bell Aliant, which serves customers in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, expecting at least $100 million a year in savings from reduced operating costs and capital investments.

Bell Aliant has operated largely independent of Bell Canada from its headquarters in Halifax, N.S. Bell Aliant customers have received FibreOp fiber to the home upgrades in several Atlantic provinces in recent years, providing more advanced services than Bell’s fiber to the neighborhood platform Fibe in Ontario and Quebec. Bell Aliant customers have also avoided usage caps and usage-based billing, getting access to unlimited use broadband at speeds up to 400/350Mbps.

Politicians in Nova Scotia immediately raised the alarm about the possibility of job cuts. Both Tory and NDP opposition leaders complain the Liberal premier has not done enough to protect jobs.

Bell Canada Enterprises

Bell Canada Enterprises

NDP MLA Dave Wilson said all three parties agreed to work on economic issues for the province. Wilson said he fears if the government isn’t vocal about its support for the jobs, Bell might look to move them elsewhere.

The news is better for those holding stock in the company. Existing public minority shareholders are being offered cash or shares of BCE stock (or a combination of both) in return for selling their Bell Aliant stock.

Bell wants to take Bell Aliant private to get access to its consistent $1 billion in cash revenue earned annually, mostly to satisfy BCE shareholders with a more reliable and consistent dividend payout.

Although Bell promises it will continue to invest in Atlantic Canada, its own financial disclosures show customers in the region will see spending on upgrades and other service improvements cut as a result of Bell’s actions.

Bell has committed to spending an average of $420 million a year across Atlantic Canada, but as an independent, Bell Aliant was investing $578 million annually, primarily on fiber upgrades. Over the next few years $160 million of the investment budget will be diverted to maintain a healthy divided payout for BCE stockholders. As of May 2014, BCE was paying a dividend of $0.6175 per quarter with common shares outstanding of 777.3 million, for a quarterly dividend payout of about $480 million per quarter, or $1.92 billion per year. As Bell Aliant shareholders cash out their holdings or convert them to BCE shares, the growing number of BCE shareholders will require Bell to spend more to satisfy dividend payouts. In fact, BCE may transfer enough money out of Bell Aliant’s operations to raise its dividend for all BCE shareholders to attract new investors.

Reduced spending will mean reduced upgrades for Bell Aliant customers. Bell is not promising significant cost savings from merger-related synergy, so capital spending will likely suffer the most as a result. So will customers.

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Stop the Cap!’s Reply Comments to NY PSC Staff Recommendations on Comcast Merger

[Ed. Note: New York's DPS and PSC in this instance are synonymous.]

psctestStop the Cap! agrees with the DPS staff’s conclusion that the petitioners (Comcast and Time Warner Cable) have failed to meet their burden of demonstrating that the transaction is in the public interest for New York residents.

However, we are concerned that the proposed mitigation strategies suggested by DPS staff are insufficient to remedy this. We also challenge some of the assigned values placed on Comcast’s “benefits” to produce a net positive for New Yorkers because the DPS staff is relying on incomplete information in assigning values and not accounting for additional costs that will be incurred by Comcast customers.

comcast-time-warner-mergerFirst, the Commission must be aware that previous attempts to impose behavioral remedies on these types of mergers to generate net positive benefits have traditionally failed to protect consumers after the merger deals are approved. Professor John E. Kwoka, Jr., in his study, “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and Merger Outcomes,” [2] found numerous examples of mitigation strategies and conditional approvals that ultimately failed to protect ratepayers from the effects of a concentrated marketplace. Few businesses in New York are as concentrated as this state’s cable companies.[3]

Second, the DPS staff’s proposal that Comcast provide at least $303.5 million in incremental benefits to New York residents over the next ten years to realize our state’s share of benefits from the proposed transaction ignores Comcast’s ability to recapture those benefits through relentless rate increases, well in excess of the cost of providing the service.

The DPS staff has also elected to rely on the Federal Communications Commission to mandate conditions to mitigate potential risks of vertical market power. That is unwise and effectively forfeits the authority given to the Commission by the New York State legislature to protect the public interest of New York residents. The FCC does not have that responsibility.

Specific Objections and Concerns Regarding DPS Staff Recommendations to Create Public Benefits

  1. Investment

The staff has recommended that the combined entity must demonstrate a commitment to make new investments or invest beyond Time Warner’s current capital investment budgets.

The problem with this formula is that ordinary planned investments as part of creating new revenue-generating opportunities can be claimed as “extra investments” for the benefit of New Yorkers, despite the fact those investments would have been made with or without an agreement compelling the investment. It also ignores the impact New York cable subscribers care about the most – their rising monthly bill.

Comcast blames those rate increases partly on the cost of increased investment. In Portland, Ore. Comcast spokeswoman Theressa Dulaney blamed annual rate hikes partly on precisely the type of investments the DPS staff declares would be a net benefit to New Yorkers.

“We continue making investments in our network and next-generation technology to make enhancements customers want and value, including faster Internet speeds, more multiplatform video and better customer service,” Dulaney said in a written statement.[4]

Comcast has asserted it will increase capital spending to improve service for Time Warner Cable customers, but continues to ignore the fact Time Warner Cable’s own upgrade program meets or surpasses Comcast’s own menu of services often at a lower cost. New Yorkers will not benefit if Comcast’s investments yield only incrementally better technology, but at a significantly higher cost and a worse customer service experience. The Commission should at a minimum establish Time Warner Cable’s Maxx service and pricing as a benchmark when comparing the products and services of the two companies and demand Comcast do better.

  1. Cable television “enhancements”

burnsThe DPS staff is correct to express skepticism about the relative benefits of Comcast’s expanded TV offerings, but then proceeds to declare the expanded programming an “incremental benefit for New York customers.”

While the DPS staff seems willing to grant Comcast credit for service improvements, it seems to lack a willingness to “deduct points” when Comcast’s improvements come at a significantly higher price and does not consider the implications of Comcast’s current market testing of broadband usage control measures like data caps/thresholds will have on Time Warner Cable customers.

The DPS staff must take care not to assign a dollar amount of an incremental benefit in Comcast’s column, but not be willing to deduct or transfer those dollars back to the column representing New York residents faced with higher prices, service restrictions, or dramatically worse customer service.

For example, Comcast’s touted television enhancements promise what Americans have said they absolutely do not want – a bigger cable TV package and a growing cable television bill. According to the Washington Post, in 2012 U.S. cable subscribers got a record average of 189 channels in prepackaged bundles but watched only 17 of those channels.[5] And the appetite to view more channels, even when offered vastly more television content, hasn’t changed much in years. In five years, cable companies added 60 more channels for the typical subscriber, but viewers haven’t increased their consumption of new content. They have consistently watched an average of 17 channels.

But their cable television bill has dramatically increased. In Oregon, Comcast cable customers paid $41.55 a month for Comcast’s “Digital Starter” package in 2004. In 2013, the price increased to $70.49.[6]

Cohen

Cohen

A-la-carte cable television is definitely not on the menu, despite consumer interest in paying only for the channels one wishes to receive.

As we noted in our previous filing[7], there are a range of other costs the DPS staff is not counting in its calculations:

  • A transition to all-digital cable television imposes added consumer costs from required set top boxes or ancillary digital boxes that can manage Comcast’s encrypted television lineup. These costs start at $25 a year in additional outlet fees per connected television, or $75 if an average household’s three television sets are connected to cable;
  • Comcast’s much-heralded X1 set top platform, a hallmark of its filing with New York regulators, includes an upgrade fee of up to $99 for the equipment – more than the cost of an entire month of cable television service;
  • Comcast’s current market trials of “usage thresholds” which place an allowance on how much a subscriber can use the Internet before overlimit fees are charged applies to XFINITY on-demand video when a tablet, phone, or home computer is used to watch. Although Comcast’s online viewing options may be more plentiful, customers in these market trial areas have discovered a double-edged sword when online viewing erodes away their monthly Internet usage allowance.

Unfortunately, none of these additional costs or limits that could or are likely to be incurred by New York subscribers are accounted for in the DPS staff recommendations.

  1. Enhanced Wi-Fi Hotspot Deployment

DPS staff seems unaware the vast majority of Comcast’s Wi-Fi hotspot deployments come from Comcast residential customers sharing their Comcast-supplied network device with other Comcast customers. Comcast charges $8-9 a month to lease its wireless gateway that provisions an extra Wi-Fi signal available to guest users. But customers carry almost all of the costs –indefinite lease charges, installation, ongoing power use, and any potential security lapses.[8]

  1. DPS Staff Wrongly Offers Consumer Benefit Credits to Comcast for Improving Customer Service

poor serviceWe strongly disagree with the DPS staff proposal to credit an overall consumer value of $50 million in return for Comcast’s commitment to improve its perennially terrible customer service rating.

Comcast’s well-documented poor customer service record alone should be sufficient to demonstrate this merger in not in the public interest of New York. Crediting $50 million in consumer value if Comcast agrees to adhere to a customer service standard any company should meet as a normal cost of doing business is unacceptable.

Under the new Public Service Law, it is Comcast alone that must demonstrate its proposal is in the public interest. The DPS staff has determined it has not met that burden. This is an unfortunate example of DPS staff showing a willingness to tolerate Comcast’s current unacceptable customer service performance and transfer a portion of the consumer benefit credit New Yorkers should enjoy as a result of the merger just to cajole Comcast to meet minimal customer service standards sometime in the future.

Comcast should arrive in New York demonstrating a solid record of customer service before being granted approval of this transaction. It is not in the public interest to subject (even if temporarily) New York residents to an even worse customer service experience than they currently receive from Time Warner Cable. We are concerned about the appearance that DPS staff is offering mitigation strategies to Comcast to help it squeeze past a public interest test it has currently failed in their view.

The DPS staff has also provided no details about its proposed public benefit program. Since customers are the ones that will suffer as a result of bad customer service, any funds captured by New York from Comcast should be rebated in full to New York customers, not for any other purpose.

Comcast executives have made two public statements that should also be weighed carefully in any recommendations to the Public Service Commission:

  • Comcast executive vice president David Cohen has predicted usage allowances will be imposed on all Comcast customers within five years.[9]
  • “We’re certainly not promising that customer bills are going to go down or even increase less rapidly.”[10] Comcast executive vice president David Cohen

[1] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={0A5EAC88-6AB7-4F79-862C-B6C6B6D2E4ED}

[2] John E. Kwoka, Jr. and Diana L. Moss, “Behavioral Merger Remedies: Evaluation and Implications for

Antitrust Enforcement,” at 22, available at

http://antitrustinstitute.org/sites/default/files/AAI_wp_behavioral%20remedies_final.pdf

[3] John E. Kwoka, Jr., “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and Merger Outcomes,” 78 Antitrust L.J 619 (2013)

[4] http://www.oregonlive.com/silicon-forest/index.ssf/2013/08/comcast_cable_tv_rates_going_u.html

[5] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/the-switch/wp/2014/05/07/cables-forced-bundles-are-getting-fatter-but-no-one-is-watching-more-channels/

[6] http://www.oregonlive.com/silicon-forest/index.ssf/2013/08/comcast_cable_tv_rates_going_u.html

[7] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={C6D8225D-7E82-4756-A715-AF9CC6CB76A5}

[8] http://arstechnica.com/information-technology/2014/06/comcast-raises-your-electric-bill-by-turning-router-into-a-public-hotspot/

[9]http://techcrunch.com/2014/05/14/comcast-wants-to-put-data-caps-on-all-customers-within-5-years/

[10] http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2014/02/comcast-no-promise-that-prices-will-go-down-or-even-increase-less-rapidly/

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