Home » Net Neutrality » Recent Articles:

New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into Broadband Speeds and Performance

Schneiderman

Schneiderman

(Reuters) – New York state’s attorney general is probing whether three major Internet providers could be shortchanging consumers by charging them for faster broadband speeds and failing to deliver the speeds being advertised, according to documents seen by Reuters.

The letters, sent on Friday to executives at Verizon Communications, Cablevision Systems, and Time Warner Cable ask each company to provide copies of all disclosures they have made to customers, as well as copies of any testing they may have done of their Internet speeds.

“New Yorkers deserve the Internet speeds they pay for. But, it turns out, many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

In statements, spokesmen for the three companies expressed confidence in the speeds of their Internet services.

“We’re confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the AG to resolve this matter,” Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said.

Cablevision spokesman Charlie Schueler said the company’s Optimum Online service “consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds, including in FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and internal tests. We are happy to provide any necessary performance information to the Attorney General as we do to our customers.”

A Verizon spokesman said the company would cooperate with Schneiderman’s office. “Verizon is confident in the robust and reliable Internet speeds it delivers to subscribers,” the spokesman said.

BroadbandMap_rev1The attorney general’s investigation is particularly focused on so-called interconnection arrangements, or contractual deals that Internet service providers strike with other networks for the mutual exchange of data.

In the letters, Schneiderman’s office says it is concerned that customers paying a premium for higher speeds may be experiencing a disruption in their service due to technical problems and business disputes over interconnection agreements.

A 2014 study by the Measurement Lab Consortium, or M-Lab, found that customers’ Internet service tended to suffer at points where their broadband providers connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers, including Cogent Communications Group.

“Internet service provider interconnection has a substantial impact on consumer Internet performance – sometimes a severely negative impact,” the study said, adding that business relationships rather than technical issues were often at the root of the problem.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the 2014 study’s findings, coupled with consumer complaints and internal analysis, prompted the inquiry into Internet speeds.

Some of the letters also raise questions about speeds delivered by Time Warner Cable and Cablevision to consumers over “the last mile,” a term that refers to the point where a telecommunication chain reaches a retail consumer’s devices.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney, Christian Plumb and Jonathan Oatis)

Corporate Puppets on Parade: Mercatus Center Writer’s Ridiculous Ranting for Usage Caps Debunked

att string puppetOnce again, a writer from the corporate-funded Mercatus Center is back to shill for the telecom industry.

Eli Dourado landed space in Slate to write a ridiculous defense of Comcast’s expanding trials of usage caps. When we first read it, we assumed a Comcast press release somehow managed to find its way into the original article. It quickly became impossible to discern the difference.

Before we take apart Mr. Dourado’s nonsensical arguments, let’s consider the source.

Sourcewatch calls Mercatus one of the best-funded think tanks in the United States. And why not. Its indefatigable advocacy of pro-corporate policies is legendary. The Center itself was initially funded by the Koch Brothers to advocate against consumer protection and oversight and for deregulation.

With that kind of mission and money, it’s no surprise the authors coming out of Mercatus are in rigid lock-step with the corporate agendas of Comcast, AT&T, and other large telecom companies. The Center is also a friend of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group that counts Comcast and AT&T as dues-paying members. ALEC’s corporate members ghostwrite legislation that ends up introduced in state legislatures across the country.

We have never seen a Mercatus-affiliated author ever write a piece that runs contrary to the interests of Big Telecom companies. They oppose community broadband competition, Net Neutrality, and have defended wireless mergers that would have killed T-Mobile, turn Time Warner customers into Comcast customers, and believed AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV was just dandy and Charter’s buyout of Time Warner Cable is even more consumer-y.

They favor usage caps/usage pricing, defend higher bills, and laughingly claim Americans are probably underpaying for broadband compared to the rest of the world.

Life must be good on Broadband Fantasy Island, where those in favor of Comcast’s usage pricing experiments live. In a style that eerily resembles a Comcast corporate blog post, Dourado unconvincingly tells readers, “metered data is good for most consumers and for the Internet.”

Dourado’s defense of Comcast’s idea of reasonable pricing only had one slip-up, when he accidentally told the truth. He effectively derailed Comcast’s usual talking point that “it is only fair for heavy users to pay more” when he correctly noted, “broadband networks are composed almost entirely of fixed costs—costs that don’t vary very much with usage.”

two peas

(Image: Jacki Gallagher)

That ripping sound you hear is a corporate executive starting to tear up their contribution check to Mercatus Center for being off message. But hang on, Mr. Corporate Guy, Mercatus Center has always had your back before, let’s see if Dourado can pull his feet out of the fire.

“But when users pay for data use, cable companies have an incentive to make it easier than ever to use a lot of data—that is, to invest in speed upgrades. They want you to blow right by your habitual usage amounts, which you will probably do only if you are on a superfast connection. In this way, metered data encourages broadband network upgrades,” Dourado claims, back on message.

Dourado’s core argument is one we’ve heard from telecom companies for years: heavy users are responsible for the allegedly high fixed costs of delivering broadband to America. Because networks must be built to accommodate all users, those ‘data hogs’ force providers to charge top dollar to everyone to assure access to promised speeds, unfairly penalizing light users like grandma along the way just to satiate someone else’s desire for more downloading.

comcast money pileIf that were true, broadband costs everywhere would be around the same and Frontier’s DSL service wouldn’t be so universally awful. Unfortunately for Dourado’s argument, we have the ability to look at broadband pricing and service quality beyond the monopoly/duopoly marketplace we have in North America. Fixed costs to deliver broadband service here are comparable in western Europe and Asia and somehow they manage to do a lot more for a lot less.

Closer to home, newly emerging competitors like Google Fiber, municipal/community broadband, and private overbuilders like Grande Communications and WOW! also manage to deliver more service for less money, without any need to gouge and abuse their customers. The fact Time Warner Cable, Verizon, Charter and Bright House have seen no need to impose compulsory usage caps or usage pricing (AT&T does not enforce their cap on U-verse service either) and also do business in the same states where Comcast is imposing caps is just the first of many threads that unravel Dourado’s poorly woven argument.

Let’s break Dourado’s other arguments down:

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

Dourado’s Claim: “Broadband networks are composed almost entirely of fixed costs—costs that don’t vary very much with usage. Cable companies have to spend many billions of dollars to build and maintain their networks whether or not we use them. One way or another, users of the network have to collectively pay those billions of dollars.”

Stop the Cap!: This is true, but Mr. Dourado forgets to mention most of the costs to construct those networks were paid off years ago. DSL and fiber to the neighborhood services avoided incurring the most costly part of network construction — wiring the last mile to the customer’s home. Phone company broadband, excepting Verizon’s complete fiber-to-the-home service network overhaul, benefits from the use of an existing copper-based network built and paid for long ago to deliver basic telephone service.

The cable industry did even better. It used the same fiber-coax network last rebuilt in the early/mid-1990s to deliver more television channels to also deliver broadband, which initially took up about as much space as just one or two TV channels. The cable industry introduced broadband experimentally, spending comparatively little on network upgrades. This was important to help overcome skepticism by corporate executives who initially doubted selling Internet access over cable would ever attract much interest. It shows how much they know.

So while it is true to say the telecommunications industry spent billions to develop their infrastructure, for most it was primarily to sell different services — voice grade telephone service and cable-TV, for which it received a healthy return. Selling broadband turned out to be added gravy. For a service the cable industry spent relatively little to offer, it collected an average of $30 a month in unregulated revenue. That price has since doubled (or more) for many consumers. Cost recovery has never been a problem for companies like Comcast.

In 2014, Techdirt showed broadband investment wasn't increasing at the rate the cable industry claimed. It has been flat, and not because of broadband usage or pricing.

In 2014, Techdirt showed broadband investment wasn’t increasing at the rate the cable industry claimed. It has been largely flat, and not because of broadband usage or pricing.

It is easy for providers to show eye-popping dollar amounts invested in broadband improvements. Most providers routinely quote these numbers to justify just about everything from rate increases to further deregulation. When the numbers alone don’t sufficiently sell their latest argument, they lie about them. Adopting any pro-consumer policy like Net Neutrality or a ban on usage pricing would, in their view, “harm investment.” Only it didn’t and it won’t.

What these same providers never include on those press releases are their revenue numbers. Placed side by side with capital expenses/infrastructure upgrades, the clarity that emerges from showing how much providers are putting in the bank takes the wind right out of their sails. It turns out most providers are already earning a windfall selling unlimited broadband at ever-rising prices, while network upgrade expenses remain largely flat or are in decline. In short, your phone or cable company is earning a growing percentage of their overall profits from the sale of broadband, because they are raising prices while also enjoying an ongoing decline in the cost of providing the service. Despite that, they are now back for more of your money.

Dourado’s basic argument is the same one providers have tried for years — attempting to pit one customer against another over who is responsible for the high cost of Internet access. They prefer to frame the argument as “heavy users” vs. “light users.” Hence, it is isn’t fair to expect grandma to pay for the teen gamer down the street who also enjoys BitTorrent file sharing. Their hope is that the time-tested meme “someone is getting a free ride while you pay for it” will act like shiny keys to distract people from fingering the real perpetrator of high pricing — the same phone and cable companies laughing all the way to the bank.

It’s easy to prove and we’ve done it here at Stop the Cap! since 2008.

bullWe have a BS detector that never fails to uncover the real motivation behind usage pricing. It’s simply this. If a provider is really in favor of usage billing, then let’s have a go at it. But it must be real usage pricing.

Here’s how it works. Just as with your electric utility, you will pay a monthly connection/facilities charge to cover the cost of the transport network and infrastructure, typically $15 or less per month (and it should be less because utilities have to maintain physical meters that cable and phone companies don’t). Next come usage charges, and because the industry seems to have adopted AT&T’s formula, we will use that.

Your broadband will now cost $15 a month for the connection charge and usage pricing will amount to $10 for each 50GB increment of usage. Because even Mr. Dourado admits there is no real cost difference supplying broadband at different speeds, you deserve the maximum. If you turn in average usage numbers, you will have consumed between 50-100GB each month. So your new broadband bill will be $25 if you consume 50 or fewer gigabytes, $35 if you consume between 50-100GB. Deal?

Considering what you are probably paying today for Internet access, you will fully understand that howling sound you hear is coming from telecom company executives screaming in opposition to fair usage pricing. That is why no provider in America is advocating for fair usage pricing. In reality, they want to charge current prices –and– impose an arbitrary usage allowance on you, above which they can begin to collect overlimit penalty fees. It’s just another rate hike.

Dourado is stuck with a bad hand trying to play the second part of the “usage pricing fairness” game. While claiming heavy users should be forced to pay more, he is unable to offer a real example of light users paying substantially less.

bshkAt this point, Dourado’s proverbial pants fall off, exposing the naked reality that few, if any customers actually pay less under usage pricing. That is because providers are terrified of the word “cannibalization.” In the broadband business, it refers to customers examining their options and downgrading their service to a cheaper-priced plan (shudder) that better reflects their actual usage. To make certain this happens rarely, if ever, Comcast offers customers scant savings of $5 from exactly one “Flexible Data Option” available only to those choosing the improbable Economy Plus plan, which offers just 3Mbps service. Customers agree to keep their usage at or below 5GB a month or they risk an overlimit fee of $1 per gigabyte. It’s like Russian Roulette for Bill Shock. Where can we sign up?

In fact, Time Warner Cable has already admitted a similar plan open to all of its broadband customers was a colossal flop, attracting only “a few thousand” customers nationwide out of 15 million qualified to choose it. We suspect the number of Comcast customers signed up to this “money-saving plan” is probably in the hundreds. Time Warner was smart enough to realize forcing customers into a massively unpopular compulsory usage plan would make them a pariah. For Comcast, “pariah” is a matter of “same story, different day.” Alienating customers is their specialty and despite growing customer dissatisfaction, executives have ordered all ahead full on usage pricing.

Dourado also can’t help himself, getting his own cheap shot in at government-mandated Lifeline-like discounts designed to make Internet access more affordable, calling it a “tax and spend program.” He omits the fact Comcast already offers its own affordable Internet plan voluntarily. But mentioning that would further undercut his already weak argument in favor of usage pricing.

Dourado: “If everyone paid equal prices for unlimited data plans, cable company revenues would be limited by the number of people willing to pay that equal rate.”

Stop the Cap!: Providers have already figured out they can charge higher prices for all sorts of things to increase revenue. General rate increases, modem fees, and charging higher prices for faster speeds are also proven ways companies are earning higher revenue from their existing customers.

Dourado: “But when users pay for data use, cable companies have an incentive to make it easier than ever to use a lot of data—that is, to invest in speed upgrades. They want you to blow right by your habitual usage amounts, which you will probably do only if you are on a superfast connection. In this way, metered data encourages broadband network upgrades.”

comcast whoppersStop the Cap!: Nice theory, but companies like Comcast have found an easier way to make money. They simply raise the price of service. Dourado should learn more about the concept of pricing elasticity. Comcast executives know all about it. It allows them, in the absence of significant competition, to raise broadband prices just because they can and not risk significant customer number defections as a result.

After they do that, the next trick in the book is to play games with usage allowances to expose more customers to overlimit fees or force them into more expensive usage plans. In Atlanta, Comcast even sells its own insurance plan to protect customers… from Comcast. For an extra $35 a month, customers can avoid being molested by Comcast’s arbitrary usage allowance and overlimit fees and get unlimited service back. As customers rightfully point out, this means they are paying $35 more a month for the same service they had just a few months earlier, with no improvements whatsoever. Is that innovative pricing or highway robbery?

What inspires companies to raise speeds and treat customers right is competition, something sorely lacking in this country. Just the vaguest threat of a new competitor, such as the arrival of Google Fiber was more than enough incentive for companies to begin investing in waves of speed upgrades, bringing some customers gigabit speeds. Usage pricing played no factor in these upgrades. The fact a new competitor threatened to sell faster Internet at a fair price (without caps) did.

Dourado: “The DOCSIS 3.1 cable modem standard, just now being finalized, will allow downloads over the existing cable network up to 10 Gbps (10 times faster than Google Fiber). Cable companies are now facing a choice as to how fast to roll out support for DOCSIS 3.1. As the theory predicts, Comcast, now experimenting with metering, is planning an aggressive rollout of the new multi-gigabit standard.”

Stop the Cap!: While Dourado celebrates Comcast’s achievements, he ignores the fact EPB Fiber in Chattanooga offers 10Gbps fiber broadband today, charging the same price Comcast wants for only 2Gbps service, and does not charge Comcast’s $1,000 installation and activation fee. EPB did not require the incentive of usage billing or caps to finance its upgrade. Dourado also conveniently ignores the fact almost every cable operator, many with no plans to add compulsory usage caps or usage pricing, are also aggressively moving forward on plans to rollout DOCSIS 3.1. It’s more efficient, allows for the sale of more profitable higher speed Internet tiers, and is cost-effective. Some companies want the right to gouge their customers, others want to do the right thing. Guess where Comcast fits.

Usage Cap Man

Usage Cap Man

Dourado: “It’s not fun to continually calculate how much you are spending. But we all gladly accept metering for water and electricity with no significant mental accounting costs—why should broadband be so different? Both Comcast and Cox make it easy to track usage. And even if we can’t just get over our mental accounting costs, are they really so significant that we should cite them as an excuse for keeping the poor and elderly offline and letting our broadband networks stagnate?”

Stop the Cap!: Assumes facts not in evidence. First, once again Mr. Dourado’s talking points come straight from the cable industry and are fatally flawed. While Dourado talks about usage pricing for water and electricity — resources that come with the added costs of being pumped, treated, or generated, he conveniently ignores the one service most closely related to broadband – the telephone. The costs to transport data, whether it is a phone call or a Netflix movie, have dropped so much, phone companies increasingly offer unlimited local -and- long distance calling plans to their customers. When is the last time anyone bothered to think about calling after 11pm to get the “night/weekend long distance rate?” For years, broadband customers have not had to worry how much a Netflix movie will chew through a broadband usage allowance either. But now they might, because the cable industry understands that Netflix viewer may have cut his cable television package, cutting the revenue the cable company now wants back.

Second, heavy Internet users are not the ones responsible for keeping the poor and elderly offline and allowing broadband infrastructure to stagnate. The blame for that lies squarely in the executive suites at Comcast, AT&T and other telecom companies that make a conscious business decision charging prices that guarantee better returns for their shareholders (and their fat executive salary and bonuses).

But it isn’t all bad news.

Comcast’s Internet Essentials already exists today and is priced at $9.95 a month. Only Comcast’s revenue-cannibalization protection scheme keep it out of the hands of more customers. It limits the program to customers with school age children on the federal student lunch program and is off-limits to existing Comcast broadband customers even if they otherwise qualify. Why? Because if the program was available to everyone, it would quickly cut their profits as customers downgraded their service.

Comcast’s abysmal performance is legendary, and that isn’t a result of heavy users either. That is entirely the fault of a company that puts its own greed ahead of its alienated customers, something plainly clear from forcing captive customers into usage trials they don’t want or need. Verizon FiOS uses technology far superior to what Comcast is using, offers better speeds and better service. Customers are happy and routinely rate FiOS among the nation’s top providers. They don’t need usage pricing or caps to manage this. Comcast sure doesn’t either.

Mr. Dourado’s arguments for usage pricing are so weak and provably false, it is almost embarrassing. But we understood he was given the impossible challenge trying to mount a defense for Comcast’s latest Internet Overcharging scheme. Nobody can defend the indefensible.

Rogers Communications: Canada’s Newest Net Neutrality Advocate?!; Blasts Vidéotron for Fuzzy Caps

rogers logoCanada’s largest wireless carrier and near-largest Internet Service Provider has just become one of Canada’s largest Net Neutrality advocates. How did that happen?

In an ironic move, Alphabeatic reports Rogers Communications today filed a letter with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission that supports a ban on providers exempting customers from usage caps when accessing content owned by the provider or its preferred partners.

The issue arose after Vidéotron, Quebec’s largest cable operator and significant wireless provider, began offering an Unlimited Music service that keeps the use of eight streaming audio services – Rdio, Stingray, Spotify, Google Play, 8Tracks, Groove, Songza and Deezer – from counting against a customer’s usage allowance.

videotron mobileThe practice of exempting certain preferred content from usage billing, known as “zero rating,” is a flagrant violation of Net Neutrality according to consumer groups. Rogers now evidently agrees.

“The Unlimited Music service offered by Vidéotron is fundamentally at odds with the objective of ensuring that there is an open and non-discriminatory marketplace for mobile audio services,” Rogers’ CRTC filing said. “Vidéotron is, in effect, picking winners and losers by adopting a business model that would require an online audio service provider (including Canadian radio stations that stream content online) to accept Vidéotron’s contractual requirements in order to receive the benefit of having its content zero-rated.”

The practice of zero rating can steer users to a provider’s own services or those that agree to partner with the provider, putting others at a competitive disadvantage. That is what bothers the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which calls the practice incompatible with an Open Internet.

Rogers has an interest in the fight. The company owns a number of commercial radio stations across Canada, many that stream their content over the Internet. None are exempt from Vidéotron’s caps.

Rogers’ advocacy for Net Neutrality is new for the company, and ironic. Rogers partnered with Vidéotron and Bell to offer its own zero-rated online video service for wireless customers until last August, when consumer groups complained to the CRTC about the practice.

Rogers may also be in the best position to judge others for the practice while finding a convenient loophole for itself. Its current promotions include free subscriptions to Shomi, a video streaming service, Next Issue, a magazine app, or Spotify, the well-known music streaming service. While Rogers won’t exempt your use of these services from its usage caps, it will effectively exempt you from having to pay a subscription fee for the service of your choice, which could provide the same amount of savings zero rating content would.

Stop the Cap Files Opposition to Charter-TWC-Bright House Merger With FCC

charter twc bhFEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION

_______________________________________

Applications of Charter Communications, Inc., Time
Warner Cable Inc., and Advance/Newhouse
Partnership for Consent to the Transfer of                        MB Docket No. 15-149

Control of Cable Television Relay Service
Applications         

_______________________________________

Statement of Opposition

(Click here to download a copy in PDF format.)

October 10, 2015

Stop the Cap! is a Rochester, N.Y.-based consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, consumption billing, speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.

Introduction

It is our view that the application of Charter Communications to effectively acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks offers no compelling public interest benefit and is therefore not in the public interest.

Our organization represents the interests of consumers and customers who face ever-growing broadband and television bills. Since its founding in 2008, we have witnessed a gap between the promised benefits of telecom mergers and what actually materializes for customers. Our conclusion is that consumers rarely benefit from these transactions. Prices continue to rise, customer service does not significantly improve, competition suffers, and conditions imposed by regulators to protect consumers or improve service are either not meaningfully met, expire too soon, or are too limited to be useful.

Charter’s claimed public interest benefits from its acquisitions are woefully inadequate and will, in fact, harm consumers if this merger is permitted.

The proposal asks the Commission to approve Charter’s acquisition of not one, but two established cable providers, one considerably larger than Charter itself:

  • Time Warner Cable, the second largest U.S. cable operator with more than 11 million residential and business customers[1];
  • Bright House Networks, the sixth largest U.S. cable operator with approximately 2.5 million customers.[2]

Charter Communications is about half the size of Time Warner Cable.[3]

Charter's broadband customer satisfaction scores are nothing to write home about.

Charter’s broadband customer satisfaction scores are nothing to write home about. Time Warner is no prize either, especially in areas where Maxx upgrades are not yet available.

In the 2015 J.D. Power U.S. Residential Television Service Provider Satisfaction Study, Charter rated poor — second to last place behind five other providers in the North West region, fourth from last behind six others in the South region, and third from last behind five other providers in the West. In fact, at no time did Charter rank anything higher than “about average” for television, broadband, and telephone service and often scored worse.[4]

This is a critical measurement of how Charter is likely to perform in areas currently served by Time Warner Cable and Bright House, should the merger be approved.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount, as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director and technology, media & telecom practice leader at J.D. Power. “The fact that households continue to choose to upgrade their wireline connection to digital service is a testament to its improved performance and benefits, such as higher quality video and faster Internet speeds.”

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler has publicly stated his four preferences for telecommunications policies that promote competition and foster enhanced service.[5]

  1. “First, where competition exists, the Commission will protect it,” Wheeler said. “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.”
  2. “Communications policy has always agreed on one important concept: the exercise of uncontrolled last-mile power is not in the public interest,” Wheeler said. “This has not changed as a result of new technology. When network operators have unrestrained last-mile power, public policy can step in to protect consumers and innovators. When cable companies, for instance, were accused of using their control over the last-mile distribution of video programing to harm competition by keeping content from others, Congress stopped that practice in the 1992 Cable Act. There are two important lessons from this: First, last-mile power cannot be a lever for gaining an unfair advantage. Second, rules of the road can provide guidance to all players and, by restraining future actions that would harm the public interest, incent more investment and more innovation.”
  3. “Where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum create 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.”
  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.”

We will return to these four themes in our statement to see if Charter’s application helps or hinders these priorities. It is our contention Charter’s application does not meaningfully advance the stated goals of the Chairman or the Commission. In fact, Charter’s proposal impedes achievement of some of these goals significantly.

In our presentation, we will regularly refer to Charter’s existing product suite, usually referred to as “Charter Spectrum.” We will also refer to two different types of service from Time Warner Cable.

Wheeler

Wheeler

On January 30, 2014, Time Warner Cable announced its new TWC Maxx initiative that substantially improved broadband speeds for customers without a corresponding rate increase. The upgrade also introduced a new class of cable equipment for video customers offering an enhanced viewing experience, increased plant/service reliability, improved customer support – including more options for in-home service calls, and retained and improved existing budget-priced broadband tiers for fixed and low-income customers.[6]

We will therefore refer to both Time Warner Cable Maxx-upgraded service areas defined above and “legacy service areas” that are currently awaiting Maxx upgrades and now offer slower top Internet speeds ranging from 50-100Mbps.

It is our contention that Charter’s proposal to bring improved broadband speeds, better set-top boxes, faster upgrades, and a three-year commitment to voluntarily adhere to Net Neutrality/Open Internet policies and not impose usage caps on residential broadband service offers little because Time Warner Cable Maxx already offers consumers a more compelling offer on an upgrade timeline nearly equivalent to that proposed by Charter Communications.

Time Warner Cable has also never been credibly accused of violating Net Neutrality principles, is unlikely to do so in the future, and has repeatedly insisted it will not impose compulsory usage caps on its customers. We also argue Charter Communications’ heavy indebtedness as a result of this transaction will likely pose a challenge to complete the company’s promised upgrade plan and its ongoing operations.

In short, consumers are much better off remaining Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers as opposed to Charter Communications customers.

Should the FCC ultimately disagree with our contention, we urge you to impose our ideas for strong and meaningful conditions to protect consumers. Without this, we fear the executives of both companies and their shareholders will be the only ones to actually benefit from this transaction. Consumers will be left with little more than a higher bill.

Discussion

charter spectrum logoCharter Communications’ proposition to the Commission and customers is to deliver a more compelling product suite offering faster Internet speeds, better set-top equipment, and a three-year commitment to adhere to the Commission’s Open Internet principles and not impose usage caps or modem rental fees on customers.

While on the surface these commitments may seem laudable, when they are closely examined it quickly becomes apparent they offer little to Time Warner Cable customers, particularly the approximately 45% of which will have been upgraded to “Maxx” service by the end of 2015.[7]

Charter customers can generally choose from two tiers of Internet service, according to Charter’s website[8]:

We offer two different Charter Internet connection packages:

Plus – up to 30Mbps Download and 4Mbps upload

Ultra – up to 100Mbps Download and 5Mbps Upload

With Charter Internet Ultra, network speeds can reach up to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). Your exact speed will depend on the service level to which you subscribe.

Charter charges new customers an introductory monthly price ranging from $29.99 (when Internet service is bundled with video/phone service) to $39.99 (Internet-only service) for its 60Mbps Standard broadband tier.[9] It is this promotional rate Charter is proposing to extend to Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers. But Charter does not commit to a specific time frame under which this promotional rate will apply to these customers. According to Charter’s disclaimer, the promotional rate expires after one year, after which the rate resets to a “standard rate,” currently $59.99 a month.[10]

speed-plan-chart-2014In contrast, Time Warner Cable offers a much larger variety of Internet tiers, starting at $14.99 a month and generally increasing in $10 increments, based on offered speed.[11] In legacy service areas, Time Warner Cable’s pricing can be more compelling, even with the slower Internet speeds, because income-challenged consumers may feel a need to buy service based on price, not performance. Charter all but eliminates these lower-cost options, except in limited circumstances where a customer manages to meet onerous requirements to qualify for a low-income broadband discount plan.

Achieving faster Internet speeds is another priority for Chairman Wheeler. At a speech last fall at 1776, the Chairman said, “a 25Mbps connection is fast becoming ‘table stakes’ in 21st century communications.”[12]

Both Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications will deliver twice or more that minimum speed as their Standard tier offering. Time Warner already achieves this goal in their Maxx service areas, where 50Mbps is the new Standard speed tier. Charter proposes to take more than two years to upgrade Time Warner Cable customers to an incrementally faster 60Mbps speed tier. Additionally, Time Warner Cable Maxx customers are assured they can further upgrade that speed in increments up to 300Mbps. Charter, in contrast, offers most customers a maximum of 100Mbps.[13]

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers want and/or need. We argue Time Warner Cable and Bright House, not Charter Communications, are both in a stronger position to deliver.

Since the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, Time Warner Cable has responsibly invested in their infrastructure without assuming an irresponsible amount of debt. Bright House Networks’ owners have taken the company private, but their ongoing investments in a robust Wi-Fi platform, their high consumer satisfaction scores, and their investments in ongoing upgrades to meet challenges of competitors like Verizon FiOS suggest the company is in healthy financial shape.

Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus reported significant progress in their first quarter 2015 report to shareholders and customers, despite the distraction of the Comcast merger[14]:

Over the past 16 months, we’ve made significant investments to improve our customers’ experience:

  • Investing more than $5.2 billion to, among other things, improve the reliability of our network and upgrade customer premise equipment – including set-top boxes and cable modems – with the latest technologies and expand its network to additional residences, commercial buildings and cell towers;
  • Launching TWC Maxx, which features greater reliability, all-digital video, advanced TV services, standard tier of Internet speeds at 50 Mbps, and higher tiers of service up to 300 Mbps. New York, Los Angeles and Austin are complete; Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway; Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii are slated for later this year; and San Diego is expected to be done in early 2016;
  • Introducing Enhanced DVR, a six-tuner set-top box that allows customers to record up to six shows simultaneously and store up to 150 hours of HD content;
  • Increasing the number of Cable Wi-Fi hotspots available to our customers to 400,000;
  • Rolling out our cloud-based video guide to 8 million set-top boxes to date. The guide also makes it easier to browse our On Demand library, which now sits at 30,000 free and paid titles and continues to grow;
  • Expanding our industry-leading TWC TV app – which allows customers to watch live TV and On Demand content and control and program their DVR from inside and outside the home. TWC TV is now available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets, Android and IOS phones and tablets, Fan TV, PCs, Samsung TV and Roku;

Serving customers on their schedules rather than ours. We expanded one-hour appointment windows across the company and in Q1 met that window 97 percent of the time. We continue to add nighttime and weekend appointments.

Marcus

Marcus

Since that report, Time Warner Cable has announced new Maxx service upgrade areas – Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C. Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[15]

On the January 29, 2015 quarterly results conference call with investors, Marcus indicated Maxx upgrades delivered tangible benefits to the company, including increased customer satisfaction, higher network reliability, and a stronger product line.[16] Based on those factors, it would be logical to assume Time Warner Cable would continue its upgrade project, and indeed Marcus confirmed this in his remarks:

“Our aim is to have 75% of our footprint enabled with Maxx […] by the end of [2016], and my guess is we’re continuing to roll it out beyond that,” said Marcus. “So the only question is prioritization, and obviously as we think about where to go first, competitive dynamics are a factor. So that includes Google, although it’s not explosively dictated by where Google decides to go. In fact I think we announced the Carolinas before Google did their announcement this week. So competitors are certainly relevant obviously.

At the rate Time Warner Cable has been rolling out Maxx upgrades, which were first announced on January 30, 2014[17], with 45% of its service area upgraded within 23 months, it is likely the company would complete its Maxx upgrade to all of its service areas within the next 24-30 months. Notably, the staff of the New York Department of Public Service found, while investigating this deal, “there is no indication that Petitioner’s plan for converting to all-digital in New York is any different from Time Warner’s existing plan.”[18]

Charter’s upgrade proposal is, in fact, generally inferior to what Time Warner Cable is accomplishing on its own. We strongly recommend the Commission carefully consider whether Charter’s proposal is as truly compelling as they claim.

twc maxxWe are also very concerned about Charter’s plans to deliver affordable Internet access. Chairman Wheeler expressed his concerns about the digital divide in broadband. The cost of access is perhaps the most important factor for getting broadband service in income-challenged households. If Charter’s price is too high, many will go without service.

Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet service – a very important offer for low income residents and senior citizens who are unable to afford the nearly $60 regular price both companies charge for their 50 or 60Mbps tiers. Time Warner Cable offers this $14.99 tier without preconditions, restricted qualifiers, contracts, or limits on what types of services can be bundled with it. Any consumer can buy the service and bundle it with Time Warner Cable telephone service for an additional $10 a month, which offers a nationwide local calling area, as well as free calls to the European Union, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and several Asian nations.

The loss of a $25 plan that includes basic Internet access and a bundled, 911-capable telephone line would be devastating to low-income households and senior citizens. During the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger hearings in New York, no topic elicited as much interest as Internet affordability and the onerous restrictions cable operators place on their income-qualified budget Internet plans.[19] The same concerns exist today with Charter’s application. Time Warner Cable clearly offers a superior product line for these customers, including two other Internet service tiers offering stepped up Internet speeds in $10 increments. These options would be unavailable from Charter.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income customers is adoption of Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, which offers restricted access to $9.95/month Internet service for those who qualify.

connect2competeStop the Cap! investigated Bright House Networks’ existing offer in a report to our readers in June 2015, and we urge the Commission to look much more closely at the specific conditions Bright House customers have had to endure to qualify to subscribe[20]:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you are not eligible until you pay that bill in full.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

5) Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880.

Families fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year. So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.

It has been our experience covering service providers across all 50 states that most design these low-cost Internet access programs with revenue protection first in mind. Charter Communications is no different. As with Comcast, Connect2Compete is only available to families with school age children. Applicants face an intrusive, complicated, and time-restricted enrollment process that threatens to dampen and discourage participation.

Charter’s claimed interest to meet the needs of low-income customers might be more honorable if not for their insistence otherwise-qualified existing customers cannot downgrade their regular price broadband plan to Connect2Compete unless they voluntarily go without Internet access for three months.

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise "No Data Caps."

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise “No Data Caps.”

We strongly recommend Charter Communications be compelled to continue Time Warner’s $14.99 Internet plan, but at speeds no less than 25Mbps, the minimum definition of entry-level broadband by the FCC. We also recommend Charter be required to further discount this plan to $9.95 a month for qualified customers who meet a simple income test the Commission can define and establish. These discount programs should not just be available to families with school-age children. Everyone needs affordable Internet access, whether you are single and looking for your first job or a fixed income senior citizen.

All restrictions for existing customers or those with an outstanding balance must be prohibited and sign-ups must be accepted 365 days a year with re-qualification occurring not more than once annually.

Charter’s broadband offer for lower-income Americans is inadequate, and so is their plan for customers who need enhanced service.

Time Warner Cable Maxx delivers a more compelling offer for consumers and small businesses that need much faster Internet access. Charter’s upgrade will offer customers two choices: 60 or 100Mbps service. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers considerably more[21]:

chartersucksCharter Communications’ commitment to not impose “usage caps” for three years is inadequate. As we have learned from Comcast, the industry definition of a “usage cap” differs widely from the definition understood by most consumers.

Charter’s commitment must be expanded to prohibit all forms of usage pricing, such as those similar to what Comcast is market testing in several of its service areas.[22] In these markets, Comcast has established an arbitrary usage allowance and charges punitive overlimit fees to customers that exceed it. Comcast has repeatedly denied it has “usage caps” because its so-called ‘data plans’ allow customers to voluntarily exceed their usage allowance, at a cost. Without a commitment Charter will also not impose usage-based pricing, its commitment to regulators not to impose “usage caps” is largely meaningless.

More concerning, Charter Communications has a history of capping their customers’ usage. Less than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation.[23] The FCC itself is investigating this and other related issues as part of this proceeding.[24]

internet limitConsumers have shown no interest in usage-based pricing or usage-capped wired Internet and strongly prefer unlimited access. One only need look at Time Warner Cable’s own results when offering an optional discounted Internet plan for customers volunteering to limit their usage.

Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus noted customers strongly want to keep their unlimited use plans, even if they cost more. Speaking at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet, and Telecom Conference, Marcus noted:

“If you take the 30GB a month and compare it to what median usage is, let’s say high 20s — 27GB a month, that would suggest a whole lot of customers would do well by taking the 30GB service,” Marcus said. “Notwithstanding that, very few customers — in the thousands — have taken the usage based tiers and I think that speaks to the value they place on unlimited — not bad because we plan to continue to offer unlimited for as far out as we can possibly see.”[25]

Marcus has repeatedly made it clear compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson they learned after customers pushed back and forced them to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and Austin, San Antonio, and Beaumont, Tex. in April 2009[26]. The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.[27]

A deal with Charter would mean Time Warner Cable's bonds would be downgraded to junk status.

A deal with Charter would mean Time Warner Cable’s bonds would be downgraded to junk status.

Time Warner Cable again offers a superior choice for Americans, and it is an important one. Chairman Wheeler said “last-mile power cannot be a lever for gaining an unfair advantage.” With many consumers having no practical choice for an alternative broadband provider, allowing Charter to impose usage limits or forcing customers into even higher-priced usage billing plans would deliver a major unfair advantage into the hands of the cable operator, always concerned with protecting its cable television package from emerging online video competition.

In fact, almost all of Charter’s so-called customer-friendly commitments and policies have a very unfriendly expiration date of just three years, which should be unacceptable to the Commission. There is no reason Charter cannot extend its commitments to not charge modem fees, adhere to the basic principles of Net Neutrality, and not impose usage caps or other forms of usage billing permanently. Without such a commitment, consumers could soon pay much higher prices for broadband service, and without robust competition unlikely to develop over the next three years, there will be every incentive for Charter to further boost earnings by imposing modem fees and usage pricing on its customers.

One of the strongest incentives for rate increases is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. The Department of Public Service staff in New York concluded New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[28]

Debt servicing costs and more expensive credit are both deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance. Charter is a much smaller cable operator than Time Warner Cable, and is itself still in the process of repairing and upgrading its own cable systems and those it acquired in earlier acquisition deals. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, is in a much stronger financial position to carry out its commitments associated with the Maxx upgrade program.

Charter’s general offer to consider expanding service into unserved areas is vague, or has been redacted. We remind the Commission the past history of winning expansion commitments from cable operators who rely on Return On Investment (ROI) formulas to determine which homes and businesses they will serve have met with limited success.

The pervasive problem of rural broadband availability is unlikely to be resolved substantially by this transaction without the strongest buildout requirements. But even that is unlikely to be of much help for large areas outside of existing video franchise areas.

Compelling Charter Communications to adopt universal service obligations within all existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House franchise areas may be a good start. Under such a requirement, any consumer or business that wants cable service and lives within the geographic boundaries of an existing franchise area would receive it upon request without construction fees, surcharges, or other passed-along fees to reach that customer, regardless of their distance from the existing cable plant or ROI formula. The largest impact of this would be to extend cable service into business parks and commercial buildings, which often lack cable service, but many suburban and exurban residential customers would also benefit. This also would achieve the Chairman’s goal to facilitate rural broadband where incumbents have generally failed to provide the service.

consumer reportsThe Commission must carefully consider Charter’s financial capacity to meet these obligations as well. No commitment is worth much if a company ultimately fails to deliver on it.

An overburdened cable operator is also unlikely to make substantial investments in improving customer service, and that makes the risk of depending on Charter Communications to improve Time Warner Cable’s already poor customer service rating doubtful. It also risks the much higher scores Bright House customers have given to that company for its superior customer service.

Competition is the biggest incentive to improve customer service and responsiveness, and that is unlikely to deliver much pressure on cable companies like Charter over the next few years. In fact, we argue customer service is likely to deteriorate in the short term because of the disruptiveness of any ownership change and eventual billing system integration.

Consumer Reports already rates Time Warner and Charter’s Internet Service poorly[29]:

  • Charter: 63 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Good Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support
  • Time Warner Cable: 57 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Fair Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support

Charter Communications’ proposed benefits to Time Warner Cable and Bright House cable television customers are also weak and not compelling. Both Time Warner Cable and Charter proposed to move to all-digital cable television to free up bandwidth to offer improved broadband before the merger deal was announced. Bright House was also headed in the same direction.

badbillWhile consumers clamor for smaller, less-costly cable television packages, Charter Communications’ CEO Thomas Rutledge is credited for inventing the “triple play” concept of convincing customers to package more services – broadband, television and telephone — together in return for a discount. Reuters cited his preference for “simplified pricing,”[30] which is why Charter offers most customers only two options for broadband service and one giant television package dubbed Spectrum TV containing more than 200 channels.[31]

Unfortunately, any benefits from an all-digital television package are likely to be diluted when customers get the bill. Currently, many Time Warner Cable customers watch analog channels on television sets around the home without the need to rent a costly set top box. Any transition to digital television will require the rental of a set top box or purchase of a third-party device to view cable television programming. These can represent costly add-ons for an already high cable bill.

With approximately 99 percent of customers renting their set-top box directly from their pay-tv provider, the set-top box rental market may be worth more than $19.5 billion per year, with the average American household spending more than $231 per year on set-top box rental fees, according to findings from Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) query of the top-ten pay-tv multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).[32]

Passed by Congress in December, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 repealed the set-top box integration ban, which enabled consumers to access technology that allowed use of a set-top box other than one leased from their cable company. Without the integration ban, by the end of this year, cable companies will no longer be required to make their services compatible with outside set-top boxes, like TiVo for example, bought directly by consumers in the retail marketplace.

American cable subscribers spend, on average, $89.16 a year renting a single set-top box. The average set-top box rental fee for each company was used to calculate an overall set-top box rental cost average across companies: $7.43 a month, or $89.16 per year. Considering many homes rent a DVR box to make and view recordings and maintain less-capable boxes on other televisions, the total cost adds up quickly. The average household spends $231.82 a year on set-top box rental fees, according to Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Charter proposes to introduce a new generation of set top boxes but as far as we know, has not disclosed the monthly cost of these IP-capable boxes to subscribers. We do note the current generation of digital set-top boxes leased by Charter cost customers $6.99 a month each, slightly less than the national average.[33] We anticipate this fee may rise after the introduction of more advanced equipment. We note Charter also charges its television customers in a city like St. Louis an extra $6.05 a month for the “Broadcast TV Service Charge” and $4.99 a month for “Whole House Wire Maintenance.”[34]

Other points the Commission should consider in reviewing this transaction:

  1. While it is true Charter and Time Warner don’t compete for the same customers, it is inaccurate to suggest the transaction will not alter competition. Cable industry consolidation is underway, in part, to help larger combined operators secure better volume discounts for increasingly expensive video programming.AT&T’s primary motivation to acquire satellite provider DirecTV was to secure better prices for video programming, both for DirecTV customers but more importantly for its own, much smaller, U-verse TV operation.[35]The cost barrier for new, directly competing entrants into the cable television business is well-recognized, especially by smaller independent cable television providers that lack the ability to secure similar volume discounts for themselves. The American Cable Association, representing small operators, warned the FCC “existing providers of both broadband and MVPD services and new entrants will be deterred from expanding their broadband networks or otherwise undertaking new builds” as a result of increasing programming costs.[36]As a result, it is unlikely a new provider will be able to develop a sustainable business model that includes cable television while paying wholesale programming costs that are dramatically higher than what combined companies like New Charter will pay.
  2. The Commission must insist that Time Warner Cable customers in legacy service areas be treated the same as those already upgraded to Maxx service. If the deal is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across the entire footprint of Time Warner Cable’s former service areas, to be completed within 30 months. We also agree with the staff recommendation of the N.Y. Department of Public Service that Charter also be compelled to upgrade its facilities to support gigabit broadband, but this should be extended to include all of its service areas, not just the largest cities.This does not pose a significant challenge to cable operators. With the upcoming introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, operators even smaller than Charter will support 1Gbps broadband speeds as they drop analog television signals. Suddenlink[37], MidContinent[38], Cox[39], and Mediacom[40] already have gigabit deployment plans underway.
  3. The Commission must establish and enforce meaningful enforcement mechanisms should Charter fail to achieve its commitments as part of this transaction. Cable consolidation has never significantly benefited consumers. Charter is not guaranteeing Time Warner Cable or Bright House customers will receive a lower bill as a result of this merger. Nor is it committing to pass along the lower prices it will achieve through negotiations for wholesale video programming volume discounts. Cable rates, especially for broadband, will continue to increase. Without meaningful competition, there is no incentive to give consumers a better deal or better service.That is why if the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful, directly relevant to the majority of customers, and ongoing.

Cable operators know once they secure a franchise or become the incumbent provider, no other cable company will negotiate with city officials to take over that franchise if the current provider’s application is denied during renewal. Once Charter (or any other cable company) establishes a presence, there is little or no chance a community will be able to get rid of that provider if it fails to perform. That is why any franchise transfer that comes from an acquisition or merger must be treated with the upmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision the Commission makes for the next 10-20 years or more.

just_say_noAs the Commission must realize, this transaction does not just involve entertainment. Recently, the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility.”[41]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to a report from the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council. “Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities.”

Our group strongly believes regulators should not take a risk on Charter’s less-then-compelling offer when Time Warner Cable and Bright House have both demonstrated a better financial position. Time Warner has a proven track record of delivering on its commitments to improve service with its Maxx upgrade project. Time Warner Cable has superior options for low-income consumers, offers more broadband options and faster speeds for entrepreneurs in the digital/information economy, and has committed to providing unlimited Internet access – a critical prerequisite for consumers choosing to drop cable television’s one-size-fits-all bloated video package and watch only the shows they want to see and pay for online.

At the start of our presentation, we referred to the Chairman’s four stated goals for improving broadband and competition. At this point, it should be obvious that shrinking the number of companies providing service has not delivered significant service improvements. In fact, for many customers, Charter’s offer is worse.

Allowing further marketplace consolidation widens the gap for cable television programming costs, which could deter new competitors from entering the market. Small providers pay dramatically higher programming costs while the largest receive substantial volume discounts. That is contrary to the Chairman’s goal of protecting last-mile competition.

Online video has created the “cord-cutting” effect, allowing consumers to shop for better video values beyond the local cable company. Without a permanent ban on usage caps and usage pricing, providers like Charter (that maintained usage caps until a few months before this application was filed) have a strong incentive to resume them after the deal’s token three-year commitment expires. Without also closing the obvious loophole of “usage pricing,” nothing precludes Charter from imposing usage-based pricing on consumers immediately after the deal is approved.

Promoting expanded rural broadband, another priority of the Commission, does little if the incumbent providers refuse to offer it. We see nothing in Charter’s public application that commits them to extending service to specific areas Time Warner Cable or Bright House do not service today. In fact, before this application was filed, Charter’s willingness to provide service to unserved areas in their own existing franchise areas was not always evident.[42] It is hard to believe Charter will voluntarily disregard their own Return On Investment formula to provide the service many rural customers eagerly hope might be forthcoming if the provider was somebody other than Time Warner Cable or Bright House.

We urge the FCC to deny Charter’s application. If it sees fit to make a different choice, we strongly recommend you demand Charter meet, at the minimum, the same level of service Time Warner Cable Maxx provides across the entire existing Time Warner franchise area, achieve the same customer service standard well-regarded Bright House manages for its customers, and a better deal for consumers that continue to face spiraling cable bills, few competitive choices, and no new alternatives on the horizon.

  • [1] http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/the-comcast-time-warner-deal-by-the-numbers/?_r=0
  • [2] https://brighthouse.com/about/about-us/about-us.html
  • [3] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/about-charter
  • [4] http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2015-us-residential-television-internet-telephone-service-provider-satisfaction
  • [5] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/09/most-of-the-us-has-no-broadband-competition-at-25mbps-fcc-chair-says/
  • [6] http://www.theverge.com/2014/1/31/5365816/time-warner-cable-maxx-plans-broadband-cable-improvements-in-nyc-la
  • [7] http://www.fiercecable.com/story/twc-promises-maxx-reach-45-customers-end-year-tivo-support-apples-airplay/2015-07-14
  • [8] https://www.myaccount.charter.com/customers/support.aspx?supportarticleid=59
  • [9] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/packages
  • [10] http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/psc-staff-recommend-charter-twc-15-m-0388.pdf
  • [11] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/plans-packages/internet/internet-service-plans.html?iid=internet-lob:1:1:compareplans
  • [12] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/09/most-of-the-us-has-no-broadband-competition-at-25mbps-fcc-chair-says/
  • [13] https://www.myaccount.charter.com/customers/support.aspx?supportarticleid=59#speedoptions
  • [14] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/04/twc-gains-momentum-with-best-ever-subscriber-growth-customer-enhancements/
  • [15] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/07/twc-maxx-expands-rollout-in-2015/
  • [16] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2864536-time-warner-cables-twc-ceo-rob-marcus-on-q4-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?
  • [17] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2014/01/get-the-details-on-twcs-plan-to-transform-ctv-internet-experience/
  • [18] http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/psc-staff-recommend-charter-twc-15-m-0388.pdf
  • [19] See e.g., Case 14-M-0183, Joint Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable, Inc. for Approval of a Transfer of Control of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Information Forum/Public Statement Hearing (dated June 19, 2014) Tr. 29-33.
  • [20] http://stopthecap.com/2015/06/25/bright-houses-mysterious-internet-discount-program-charter-wants-to-adopt-nationwide
  • [21] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
  • [22] http://customer.xfinity.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials/
  • [23] http://stopthecap.com/2015/09/23/fcc-demands-details-about-charters-suddenly-retired-usage-caps/
  • [24] https://www.fcc.gov/document/request-information-sent-charter-communications-inc-0
  • [25] http://stopthecap.com/2014/03/13/time-warner-cable-admits-usage-based-pricing-is-a-big-failure-only-thousands-enrolled/
  • [26] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=7368388
  • [27] http://stopthecap.com/2014/10/30/time-warner-cable-recommits-mandatory-usage-caps-long-company-remains-independent/
  • [28] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={C60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54} (p.39)
  • [29] http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/computers-internet/telecom-services/internet-service-ratings/ratings-overview.htm
  • [30] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/30/us-charter-timewarnercable-rutledge-anal-idUSBREA0T01D20140130
  • [31] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup
  • [32] http://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-blumenthal-decry-lack-of-choice-competition-in-pay-tv-video-box-marketplace
  • [33] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/rate-card-info (city of St. Louis, Mo.)
  • [34] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/rate-card-info (city of St. Louis, Mo.)
  • [35] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/07/24/fcc-approves-ts-acquisition-directv/30626421/
  • [36] http://www.americancable.org/node/5229
  • [37] http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/suddenlink-boots-1-gig-broadband/392087
  • [38] https://www.midco.com/PressRoom/2014/midcontinent-bringing-gigabit-internet-access-to-the-northern-plains/
  • [39] http://www.multichannel.com/news/distribution/cox-plots-docsis-31-plans/393996
  • [40] http://www.multichannel.com/news/cable-operators/mediacom-sets-residential-1-gig-rollout/393585
  • [41] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report
  • [42] http://www.dslreports.com/forum/r28864058-Why-won-t-Charter-come-another-1-2-mile-for-more-customers

Stop the Cap!’s Formal Testimony to N.Y. PSC Opposing Charter/Time Warner Cable Merger

charter twc bhSTATE OF NEW YORK

PUBLIC SERVICE COMMISSION

_______________________________________

Joint Petition of Charter Communications and Time

Warner Cable for Approval of a Transfer of Control

of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Pro Forma                                Case 15-M-0388

Reorganization, and Certain Financing Arrangements.                               

_______________________________________

Statement of Opposition to Joint Petition and

Response to Redacted Comments of DPS Staff

Phillip M. Dampier, Director and Founder: Stop the Cap!

Rochester, New York

September 25, 2015

Stop the Cap! is a Rochester-based consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, consumption billing, speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.

Introduction

Our opposition to the Joint Petition is based on our belief it does not meet the “public interest”  test established in Section 222 of the New York Public Service law, and must therefore be denied.

For the sake of brevity, we wish to associate ourselves with most of the views of the DPS Staff contained in their redacted comments regarding this case, published on the DPS website on September 16, 2015. Most of our testimony will seek to expand on their findings or add additional information to the record for the Commission’s consideration.

As we stated in our remarks regarding the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, New York law obligates the applicant alone to demonstrate its proposal is in the public interest. If the Commission finds the application does not meet the public interest or provide sufficient public benefits, it should be rejected. The DPS staff has reported to you Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable have not met their burden. We agree.

The DPS staff then proposes a mitigation strategy in an effort to tip the balance in favor of the applicant. It remains our view it is not the Commission’s responsibility to help tip the balance in favor of an applicant that has failed to meet its burden.

Nevertheless, we offer the Commission our insight about Charter Communications, its proposals, and the DPS staff recommendations with the hope it will be useful to win commitments from Charter should the Commission choose to proceed with approval, enforcing modifications to deliver the public interest benefits consumers across New York tell us they actually want and need from their providers.

Discussion

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

New York State, particularly across the upstate region, is not well positioned to take advantage of next generation broadband networks. Just two providers deliver telecommunications services to the majority of New York: Verizon Communications and Time Warner Cable. Although Frontier Communications and Cablevision also deliver service, their service areas are much smaller than the two dominant incumbents. The decisions Verizon and Time Warner Cable make about their investments in broadband and telephone service affect millions of New Yorkers.

Many New York residents have only one choice for Internet service that meets the Federal Communications Commission’s definition of broadband: 25Mbps download speed and at least 3Mbps upload speed.[1] In areas where Verizon FiOS is not available, Time Warner Cable is the only significant provider consistently providing service options at or above 25Mbps. The most common alternative is DSL, which rarely meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

With this in mind, the FCC reported 53 percent of rural Americans lack access to broadband service achieving speeds of 25Mbps or better. As much as 20 percent still lack access to broadband at speeds achieving the FCC’s old benchmark of 4Mbps. Upstate New York, in particular, is a long way away from achieving the goals of 100Mbps broadband set by Gov. Cuomo, unless you have access to a cable broadband provider.

In Rochester, the majority of residents have only one choice for a provider that meets the FCC’s definition of broadband: Time Warner Cable. While Frontier Communications has made investments to improve their wireline network, only a small minority of customers qualify for DSL service that can meet the FCC’s benchmarks.

While Verizon Communications has done an admirable job delivering its fiber to the home service FiOS to portions of New York, the company has suspended expansion of the service and has not even met its service obligations in cities like New York.[2]

Even more concerning is the fact none of the significant incumbent providers serving New Yorkers have expressed any interest in providing residential gigabit speed service. Google Fiber has not announced any expansion into New York State and other significant gigabit speed providers, including AT&T, do not provide wireline service in New York.

In contrast, in states including Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee, many consumers have the option of choosing at least two gigabit service providers (Google or AT&T) as well as municipal or public broadband providers such as EPB, which serves the Chattanooga area. Time Warner Cable has focused much of its upgrade activity on these communities to remain competitive, delivering 300Mbps broadband service for the price it used to charge for 50Mbps speeds.

In western New York, the fastest broadband speed most residential customers can buy is just 50Mbps. Charter Communications proposes to increase that speed in some areas to a maximum of 100Mbps, along with their entry level 60Mbps plan. Although helpful, that offers little solace to residents and small businesses that would like the option to purchase considerably faster Internet speeds that are now becoming available in other parts of the country.

The Commission’s decision will have an enormous impact on what kinds of telecommunications services will be available to New Yorkers for years to come. Verizon has shown no interest in resuming fiber service upgrades, so most customers will continue to purchase Internet access from the incumbent cable operator to obtain the broadband speeds they require. Today that usually means Time Warner Cable. Sometime next year, that could be Charter Communications.

Time Warner Cable vs. Charter Communications

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers in this state want and/or need. We argue that operator is Time Warner Cable, not Charter Communications.

Since the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, Time Warner Cable has responsibly invested in their infrastructure without assuming an irresponsible amount of debt.

twc maxxTime Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus reported significant progress in their first quarter 2015 report to shareholders and customers, despite the distraction of the Comcast merger[3]:

Over the past 16 months, we’ve made significant investments to improve our customers’ experience:

  • Investing more than $5.2 billion to, among other things, improve the reliability of our network and upgrade customer premise equipment – including set-top boxes and cable modems – with the latest technologies and expand its network to additional residences, commercial buildings and cell towers;
  • Launching TWC Maxx, which features greater reliability, all-digital video, advanced TV services, standard tier of Internet speeds at 50 Mbps, and higher tiers of service up to 300 Mbps. New York, Los Angeles and Austin are complete; Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway; Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii are slated for later this year; and San Diego is expected to be done in early 2016;
  • Introducing Enhanced DVR, a six-tuner set-top box that allows customers to record up to six shows simultaneously and store up to 150 hours of HD content;
  • Increasing the number of Cable Wi-Fi hotspots available to our customers to 400,000;
  • Rolling out our cloud-based video guide to 8 million set-top boxes to date. The guide also makes it easier to browse our On Demand library, which now sits at 30,000 free and paid titles and continues to grow;
  • Expanding our industry-leading TWC TV app – which allows customers to watch live TV and On Demand content and control and program their DVR from inside and outside the home. TWC TV is now available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets, Android and IOS phones and tablets, Fan TV, PCs, Samsung TV and Roku;

Serving customers on their schedules rather than ours. We expanded one-hour appointment windows across the company and in Q1 met that window 97 percent of the time. We continue to add nighttime and weekend appointments.

Marcus

Marcus

Since that report, Time Warner Cable has announced new Maxx service upgrade areas – Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C. At least 45 percent of Time Warner Cable’s national footprint will be serviced with Maxx upgrades by the end of this year, and Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[4]

Marcus has indicated repeatedly he intends to see Maxx service upgrades extend even further. On the January 29, 2015 quarterly results conference call with investors, Marcus indicated Maxx upgrades delivered tangible benefits to the company, including increased customer satisfaction, higher network reliability, and a stronger product line. Based on those factors, it would be logical to assume Time Warner Cable would continue its upgrade project, and indeed Marcus confirmed this in his remarks:

“Our aim is to have 75% of our footprint enabled with Maxx […] by the end of [2016], and my guess is we’re continuing to roll it out beyond that,” said Marcus[5]. “So the only question is prioritization, and obviously as we think about where to go first, competitive dynamics are a factor. So that includes Google, although it’s not explosively dictated by where Google decides to go. In fact I think we announced the Carolinas before Google did their announcement this week. So competitors are certainly relevant obviously.

At the rate Time Warner Cable has been rolling out Maxx upgrades, which were first announced on January 30, 2014[6], with 45% of its service area upgraded within 23 months, it is likely the company would complete its Maxx upgrade to all of its service areas within the next 24-30 months. The DPS staff also notes, “there is no indication that Petitioner’s plan for converting to all-digital in New York is any different from Time Warner’s existing plan.”

Charter’s upgrade proposal is, in fact, generally inferior to what Time Warner Cable is accomplishing on its own. We strongly recommend the Commission carefully consider whether Charter’s proposal is as truly compelling as they claim.

Charter Communications’ upgrade proposal is not a good deal for New York.

We agree with the DPS staff’s conclusion Time Warner Cable, on its own, would likely complete its Maxx upgrade program across upstate New York at or around the same time Charter’s proposed upgrades would be complete. Therefore, when comparing Charter’s proposal with Time Warner Cable’s existing service, we urge you to use Time Warner Cable Maxx service as the benchmark, not the existing level of service provided in upstate New York today.

chartersucksTime Warner Cable Maxx offers 50/5 Mbps speeds under its most popular Standard plan. In contrast, Charter proposes to offer 60/5Mbps service under its most-popular Spectrum plan. While Charter’s offer is superior at first glance, it comes at a cost to customers looking for more budget-priced service or those seeking faster speeds.

Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet service – a very important offer for low income residents and senior citizens who are unable to afford the nearly $60 regular price both companies charge for their 50 or 60Mbps tiers. Time Warner Cable offers this tier without preconditions, restricted qualifiers, contracts, or limits on what types of services can be bundled with it. Any consumer qualifies for the service and can bundle it with Time Warner Cable telephone service for an additional $10 a month, which offers a nationwide local calling area, as well as free calls to the European Union, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and several Asian nations.

The loss of a $25 plan that includes basic Internet access and a bundled, 911-capable telephone line would be devastating to low-income New Yorkers and senior citizens. During the Comcast-Time Warner Cable hearings, no topic elicited as much interest as Internet affordability. Time Warner Cable clearly offers a superior product line for these customers, including two other Internet service tiers offering stepped up Internet speeds in $10 increments. These options would be unavailable from Charter.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income New Yorkers is adoption of Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, which offers restricted access to $9.95/month Internet service for those who qualify.

Stop the Cap! investigated Bright House Networks’ existing offer in a report to our readers[7] in June 2015, and we urge the Commission to look much more closely at the specific conditions Bright House customers have had to endure to qualify to subscribe:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you are not eligible until you pay that bill in full.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

5) Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880.

connect2competeFamilies fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year. So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.

It has been our experience covering service providers across all 50 states that most design these low-cost Internet access programs with revenue protection first in mind. Charter Communications is no different. As with Comcast, Connect2Compete is only available to families with school age children. Applicants face an intrusive, complicated, and time-restricted enrollment process designed to dampen and discourage enrollment.

The interest in meeting the needs of low-income customers would be laudable if not for the insistence otherwise-qualified existing customers cannot downgrade their regular price broadband plan to Connect2Compete unless they voluntarily go without Internet service for three months.

We strongly recommend Charter Communications be compelled to continue Time Warner’s $14.99 Internet plan, but at speeds no less than 25Mbps, the minimum definition of entry-level “broadband” by the FCC. We also recommend Charter be required to further discount this plan to $9.95 a month for qualified customers who meet a simple income test the Commission can define and establish. These discount programs should not just be available to families with school-age children. Everyone needs affordable Internet access, whether you are single and looking for your first job or a fixed income senior citizen.

All restrictions for existing customers or those with an outstanding balance must be prohibited and sign-ups must be accepted 365 days a year with re-qualification occurring not more than once annually.

Charter’s broadband offers for lower-income New Yorkers are not adequate, and neither are their plans for customers who need enhanced service.

Time Warner Cable Maxx delivers a more compelling offer for consumers and small businesses that need much faster Internet access. Charter’s upgrade will offer customers two choices: 60 or 100Mbps service. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers considerably more[8]:

SpeedChart

Charter Communications has only committed to provide customers with unlimited Internet access for three years. Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus has repeatedly made it clear compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson they learned after customers pushed back and forced them to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester and other cities in April 2009[9]. The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.[10]

Time Warner Cable again offers a better choice for New Yorkers. With many New Yorkers having no practical alternatives, imposing usage limits or forcing customers into even higher-priced usage billing plans would only make New York even less attractive for those who need high quality Internet access for education, telecommuting, or to assist in running a small business. Google Fiber, in contrast, offers 1,000Mbps service with no usage caps at all. Many other providers also have no plans to introduce usage caps.

Charter Communications has a history of capping their customers’ usage. Less than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation and the FCC now wants to know why, as they also contemplate the impact of the merger[11] [12]. In addition to the anti-consumer practice of placing customers on an unnecessary usage allowance, such usage limits may also be established for anti-competitive reasons to limit exposure to online video streaming, which competes directly with cable television. Customers who watch a lot of online video are those most likely to face service suspension or find overlimit usage fees applied to their bill.

junk3Almost all of Charter’s so-called customer-friendly commitments and policies have a very unfriendly expiration date of three years, which should be unacceptable to the Commission. There is no reason Charter cannot extend its commitments to not charge modem fees, adhere to the basic principles of Net Neutrality, and not impose usage caps or other forms of usage billing permanently. Without such a commitment, consumers could soon pay much higher prices for broadband service, and without robust competition unlikely to develop in most of New York over the next three years, there will be every incentive for Charter to further boost earnings by imposing modem fees and usage pricing on its customers.

One of those incentives is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. DPS staff is correct when they noted New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[13]

Debt servicing costs and more expensive credit are both deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance. Charter is a much smaller cable operator than Time Warner Cable, and is itself still in the process of repairing and upgrading its own cable systems and those it acquired in earlier acquisition deals. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, is in a much stronger financial position to carry out its commitments associated with the Maxx upgrade program.

consumer reportsSpecifics about Charter’s commitments to expand service into unserved areas of New York were either vague and non-specific or redacted. The past history of winning expansion commitments from cable operators who rely on Return On Investment (ROI) formulas to determine which homes and businesses they will serve have met with limited success.

The pervasive problem of rural broadband availability is unlikely to be resolved substantially by this transaction without the strongest buildout requirements. But even that is unlikely to be of much help for large sections of New York outside of existing video franchise areas. Compelling Charter Communications to adopt universal service obligations within all existing Time Warner Cable franchise areas may be a good start. Under such a requirement, any consumer or business that wants cable service and lives within the geographic boundaries of an existing franchise area would receive it upon request without construction fees, surcharges, or other passed-along fees to reach that customer, regardless of their distance from the existing cable plant or ROI formula. The largest impact of this would be to extend cable service into business parks and commercial buildings, which often lack cable service, but many suburban and exurban residential customers would also benefit.

But the Commission must look carefully at Charter’s financial capacity to meet these obligations after assuming control of a company much larger than itself. No commitment is worth much if a company ultimately fails to deliver on it.

An overburdened cable operator is also unlikely to make substantial investments in improving customer service, and that makes the risk of depending on Charter Communications to improve Time Warner Cable’s already poor customer service rating doubtful. Competition is the biggest incentive to improve customer service and responsiveness, and that is unlikely to prove much of a factor for large sections of New York over the next few years. In fact, we argue customer service is likely to deteriorate for New Yorkers in the short term because of the disruptiveness of any ownership change and eventual billing system integration. Again, Charter’s proposal offers no compelling public interest benefit to New Yorkers. The fact DPS staff is proposing a performance incentive mechanism to compel service improvements illustrates absent punitive measures, Charter Communications is unlikely to offer any improvement over Time Warner Cable, and may in fact perform worse.

Consumer Reports rates both companies’ Internet Service poorly[14]:

  • Charter: 63 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Good Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support
  • Time Warner Cable: 57 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Fair Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support

Virtually nothing Charter Communications has offered as a public interest benefit meets that criteria. Its commitment to improve cable television does not offer any significant benefit to New York cable TV subscribers. Both Time Warner Cable and Charter propose to move to all-digital cable television to free up bandwidth to offer improved broadband.

Rutledge

Rutledge

While consumers clamor for smaller, less-costly cable television packages, Charter Communications’ CEO Thomas Rutledge is credited for inventing the “triple play” concept of convincing customers to package more services – broadband, television and telephone — together in return for a discount. Reuters cited his penchant for “simplified pricing,”[15] which is why Charter offers most customers only two options for broadband service and one giant television package dubbed Spectrum TV containing more than 200 channels.[16]

Unfortunately, any benefits from an all-digital television package are likely to be dismissed when customers get the bill. Currently, many Time Warner Cable customers watch analog television channels on television sets around the home without the need to rent a costly set top box. Any transition to digital television will require the rental of a set top box or purchase of a third-party device to view cable television programming. These can represent costly add-ons for an already high cable bill.

With approximately 99 percent of customers renting their set-top box directly from their pay-tv provider, the set-top box rental market may be worth more than $19.5 billion per year, with the average American household spending more than $231 per year on set-top box rental fees. These are some of the findings from Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) query of the top-ten pay-tv multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).[17]

Passed by Congress in December, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 repealed the set-top box integration ban, which enabled consumers to access technology that allowed use of a set-top box other than one leased from their cable company. Without the integration ban, by the end of this year, cable companies will no longer be required to make their services compatible with outside set-top boxes, like TiVo for example, bought directly by consumers in the retail marketplace.

American cable subscribers spend, on average, $89.16 a year renting a single set-top box. The average set-top box rental fee for each company was used to calculate an overall set-top box rental cost average across companies: $7.43 a month, or $89.16 per year. Considering many homes rent a DVR box to make and view recordings and maintain less-capable boxes on other televisions, the total cost adds up quickly. The average household spends $231.82 a year on set-top box rental fees, according to Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Charter proposes to introduce a new generation of set top boxes but as far as we know, has not disclosed the monthly cost of these IP-capable boxes to subscribers. We anticipate they will cost more than the current equipment provided by Time Warner Cable, which has also been increasing the cost of its set top box rentals.

Time Warner Cable’s entry level Digital Transport Adapters, which convert digital/HD signals for older analog-only television sets, almost tripled in price over just one year. Originally introduced for $0.99 a month, the rental fee increased this year to $2.75 a month for customers in Rochester.[18]

Other points the Commission should consider in reviewing this transaction:

  1. DPA staffers claim the transaction is unlikely to alter the competitive landscape because Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable do not have overlapping service areas. While it is true Charter and Time Warner don’t compete for the same customers, it is inaccurate to suggest the transaction will not alter competition. Cable industry consolidation is underway, in part, to help larger combined operators secure better volume discounts for increasingly expensive video programming.

    AT&T’s primary motivation to acquire satellite provider DirecTV was to secure better prices for video programming, both for DirecTV customers but more importantly for its own, much smaller, U-verse TV operation.[19]

    The cost barrier for new, directly competing entrants into the cable television business is well-recognized, even by smaller independent cable television providers that are having difficulty staying profitable and maintaining investments in broadband as they lack the ability to secure similar volume discounts for themselves. The American Cable Association, representing small operators, warned the FCC “existing providers of both broadband and MVPD services and new entrants will be deterred from expanding their broadband networks or otherwise undertaking new builds” as a result of increasing programming costs.[20]

    As a result, it is unlikely a new provider will be able to develop a sustainable business model that includes cable television while paying wholesale programming costs that are dramatically higher than what combined companies like New Charter will pay.

  2. The Commission must insist that upstate New York is treated equally to the New York City market. If the deal is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across all of its service areas in New York State, to be completed within 30 months. Nothing less than that should be acceptable to the Commission. We agree with the DPS staff’s recommendation that Charter also be compelled to upgrade facilities to support gigabit broadband, but this should be extended to include all of its service areas in New York, not just the largest cities.

    This does not pose a significant challenge to any cable operator. With the upcoming introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, cable operators even smaller than Charter will support 1Gbps broadband speeds as they drop analog television signals. Suddenlink[21], MidContinent[22], Cox[23], and Mediacom[24] already have gigabit deployment plans in the works. If Fargo, N.D. is getting gigabit broadband from MidContinent Communications in the near future, Charter should have no problem offering similar service to customers in Jamestown, Penn Yan, Watertown, Binghamton, and beyond.

  3. The Commission must establish and enforce meaningful enforcement mechanisms should Charter fail to achieve its commitments as part of this transaction. Cable consolidation has never significantly benefited consumers. Charter is not guaranteeing Time Warner Cable customers will receive a lower bill as a result of this merger. Nor is it committing to pass along the lower prices it will achieve through negotiations for video programming volume discounts. Cable rates, especially for broadband, will continue to increase. Without meaningful competition, there is no incentive to give consumers a better deal or better service.

    That is why if the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful and ongoing. Any failure to deliver on those commitments must include a direct benefit to customers, not just to the state government. If fines are imposed, customers should receive a cash rebate or equivalent service credit for services not provided as part of any agreement.

Cable operators know once they secure a franchise or become the incumbent provider, no other cable company will negotiate with city officials to take over that franchise if the current provider’s application is denied during renewal. Once Charter (or any other cable company) establishes a presence, there is little or no chance a community will be able to get rid of that provider if it fails to perform. That is why any franchise transfer that comes from an acquisition or merger must be treated with the upmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision the Commission makes for the next 10-20 years or more.

dpsAs Time Warner Cable customers loudly reminded the Commission in the Comcast merger proceeding, there is such a thing as a cable operator even worse than Time Warner Cable, already one of the lowest rated companies in the country. Comcast’s reputation preceded its intended entry into New York on a massive scale and the application was eventually withdrawn.

As the Commission must realize, this transaction does not just involve entertainment. Last week the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility.”[25]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to a report from the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council. “Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities.”

Unfortunately, the federal government has seen to it that this core utility is provided without the ability of local and state governments to properly deliver needed oversight. While the Public Service Commission lacks the authority to enforce consumer protections and quality of service standards for Internet access, it retains the very powerful ability to determine whether a company seeking to make a fortune selling consumers broadband service in a monopoly/duopoly market for many New Yorkers is a good or bad thing for consumers.

Our group strongly believes New York should not take a risk on Charter’s less-then-compelling offer when Time Warner Cable has demonstrated it is in a better financial position and has a proven track record of delivering on its commitments to improve service with its Maxx upgrade project. Time Warner Cable has superior options for low-income New Yorkers, has a large number of New York-based call centers providing valuable employment for our residents, offers more broadband options and faster speeds for entrepreneurs remaking themselves in the digital/information economy, and has committed to providing unlimited Internet access – a critical prerequisite for consumers choosing to drop cable television’s one-size-fits-all bloated video package and watch only the shows they want to see and pay for online.

We urge the Public Service Commission to deny Charter’s application. If it sees fit to make a different choice, we strongly recommend you demand the best possible deal for New York consumers and businesses that, as the DPS staff wrote, deserve best-in-class communications services.

  • [1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/02/03/fcc-now-defines-minimum-broadband-speed-25mbps-everything-less-now-slowband/
  • [2] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
  • [3] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/04/twc-gains-momentum-with-best-ever-subscriber-growth-customer-enhancements/
  • [4] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/07/twc-maxx-expands-rollout-in-2015/
  • [5] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2864536-time-warner-cables-twc-ceo-rob-marcus-on-q4-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?
  • [6] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2014/01/get-the-details-on-twcs-plan-to-transform-ctv-internet-experience/
  • [7] http://stopthecap.com/2015/06/25/bright-houses-mysterious-internet-discount-program-charter-wants-to-adopt-nationwide/
  • [8] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
  • [9] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=7368388
  • [10] http://stopthecap.com/2014/10/30/time-warner-cable-recommits-mandatory-usage-caps-long-company-remains-independent/
  • [11] http://stopthecap.com/2015/09/23/fcc-demands-details-about-charters-suddenly-retired-usage-caps/
  • [12] http://www.multichannel.com/news/fcc/fcc-seeks-data-dump-charter-twc-bright-house/394010
  • [13] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={C60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54} (p.39)
  • [14] http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/computers-internet/telecom-services/internet-service-ratings/ratings-overview.htm
  • [15] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/30/us-charter-timewarnercable-rutledge-anal-idUSBREA0T01D20140130
  • [16] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup
  • [17] http://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-blumenthal-decry-lack-of-choice-competition-in-pay-tv-video-box-marketplace
  • [18] http://stopthecap.com/2014/12/22/time-warner-cable-deck-halls-8-modem-fees-fa-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-la-2-75-dta-fee/
  • [19] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/07/24/fcc-approves-ts-acquisition-directv/30626421/
  • [20] http://www.americancable.org/node/5229
  • [21] http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/suddenlink-boots-1-gig-broadband/392087
  • [22] https://www.midco.com/PressRoom/2014/midcontinent-bringing-gigabit-internet-access-to-the-northern-plains/
  • [23] http://www.multichannel.com/news/distribution/cox-plots-docsis-31-plans/393996
  • [24] http://www.multichannel.com/news/cable-operators/mediacom-sets-residential-1-gig-rollout/393585
  • [25] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

Charter Relies on Netflix Testimonial to Sell Time Warner Cable/Bright House Merger to Consumers

netflix charter

Image from Meet New Charter television ad (Image courtesy: Charter Communications)

Charter Communications has begun advocating for its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in advertisements that note Netflix is a merger supporter.

“Netflix says our upcoming merger with Time Warner Cable is a good thing for you,” said the advertisement, which also promoted an Associated Press story that stated Netflix supports Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable.

The 30-second spots, now run by Time Warner in heavy rotation during local ad inserts on cable networks, promotes Charter’s 60Mbps entry-level broadband tier, 200 HD channels, no contracts or hidden fees, and the company’s claim it offers unlimited broadband access. It does not mention Charter executives have included a three-year expiration date on their commitments, after which the company can do almost anything it pleases.

Charter is hoping to enlist Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers to advocate for their merger’s approval with regulators and has launched a new website called Meet New Charter to promote the deal.

As of early September, the sparse website includes four testimonials — one from Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix who supports the transaction because Charter promises to voluntarily abide by Net Neutrality policies, won’t attempt to extract fees from Netflix to improve the reach of its service for TWC/Bright House customers, and won’t have usage caps — all deterrents to subscribers using online video.

The other three testimonials come from cable and broadcast programming networks depending on carriage deals with Charter to increase their audience reach.

Meet New Charter wrote of these commitments for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers:

Faster speeds. Charter’s slowest broadband tier is 60Mbps, which enhances the ability of several people in the same house to watch streaming high-definition video at the same time.

Affordable, faster broadband at lower prices. New Charter will price its new 60Mbps entry level speeds based on Charter’s current model, which is less expensive than TWC and BHN’s comparable offerings.   Charter’s pricing model offers nationally uniform pricing with no data caps, no usage-based pricing, no modem fees and no early termination fees.

Committed to Net Neutrality. Charter has long practiced network neutrality and consistently invested in interconnection capacity to avoid network congestion.

Investing in customer care. We are focused on improving New Charter’s customer service and improving our relationships with our customers across our footprint.  Over the last three years, Charter has brought back jobs from overseas call centers and hired thousands of people to improve our customer care services. New Charter will also return TWC call center jobs to the United States and will hire and train thousands of new employees for its customer service call centers and field technician operations.

A quicker rollout of advanced technology. We will complete the full digitization of TWC and BHN—freeing up spectrum that will allow for faster broadband speeds and more high-definition channels and On-Demand offerings.

New Charter customers will transition to Charter’s new cloud-based guide. The new guide will offer intuitive search and discovery and will work on old and new set-top boxes, so consumers will get the benefits of the new guide without needing a technician to visit or to pay more for a new box.

To carry out these ambitions, Charter will have to drop analog video channels from the lineup, which means cable television customers will need to lease set-top boxes or other devices for each connected television in their home.

Consumer Reports has also repeatedly rated Charter as one of the country’s worst cable operators (sub req’d.) for customer service, pricing, customer satisfaction, and reliability. In 2015 it rated among the bottom five cable operators nationwide.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/We Are Charter 9-9-15.mp4

Charter Communications has begun running this advertisement in heavy rotation on Time Warner Cable systems promoting its merger deal. (30 seconds)

HissyfitWatch: Witch Hunt – T-Mobile Declares War on “Abusive LTE Tethering”

heavy user

Burn Her! T-Mobile CEO John Legere announces a data hog crackdown.

T-Mobile’s CEO has declared war on about 3,000 current customers caught “stealing data from T-Mobile” by using workarounds to avoid T-Mobile’s tethering usage allowance.

T-Mobile customers with unlimited 4G LTE plans get a fixed allowance to be used for tethering when using the Smartphone Mobile HotSpot feature, which allows laptops, tablets, and other wireless devices to share a T-Mobile wireless data connection.

“These violators are going out of their way with all kinds of workarounds to steal more LTE tethered data,” said John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA. “They’re downloading apps that hide their tether usage, rooting their phones, writing code to mask their activity, etc. They are ‘hacking’ the system to swipe high-speed tethered data.”

Legere claims the “clever hackers are willfully stealing for their own selfish gain” and are running up as much as two terabytes of usage a month over T-Mobile’s network. Legere thunders he won’t allow this on his watch and the company is starting a campaign of countermeasures this week to go “after a small group of users who are stealing data so blatantly and extremely that it is ridiculous.”

Legere was not specific about how T-Mobile identifies customers it considers to be abusing its network, but a new FAQ on the carrier’s website explains what will happen to those deemed to be exploiting workarounds to exceed T-Mobile’s standard 7GB tethering allowance:

We’re first warning these customers that they’re illegally using more data than they bought. We hope folks will stop on their own so they can keep their current plan. These customers are on an unlimited 4G LTE smartphone plan that includes a set amount of Smartphone Mobile HotSpot data, but they’re using workarounds to make their tethering look like smartphone usage which helps them use significantly more 4G LTE tethering than their plan includes.

Customers who continue to do this will be warned, then lose access to our Unlimited 4G LTE smartphone data plan, and be moved to an entry-level limited 4G LTE data plan.

Legere

Legere

Legere is clearly concerned the crackdown could be interpreted by the Federal Communications Commission as a Net Neutrality violation.

“These abusers will probably try to distract everyone by waving their arms about throttling data,” Legere wrote. “Make no mistake about it – this is not the same issue. Don’t be duped by their sideshow. We are going after every thief, and I am starting with the 3,000 users who know exactly what they are doing. The offenders start hearing from us tomorrow. No more abuse and no risk to the rest of our customers’ experience. It’s over. If you are interested, you can find more info in our [FAQ].

The FCC has no rules prohibiting usage caps, but the issue of speed throttling is less settled and Legere’s comments are intended to frame the issue in terms of data theft and violations of the company’s terms and conditions.

Carriers are often less lenient with hotspot usage because desktop computers and laptops often consume much more data than portable handheld devices like tablets and smartphones. T-Mobile admits that customers who need to consume a lot of data should find another ISP:

[Wired] Broadband services would be a better solution for customers who need more high-speed for tethered devices.

The Philippines: Free Market Broadband Paradise or Deregulated Duopolistic Hellhole?

special reportFans of the “hands-off” approach to broadband oversight finally have a country where they can see a deregulated free marketplace in action, where consumers theoretically pick the winners and losers and where demand governs the kinds of services consumers and businesses can get from their providers.

That country is the Philippines, which has taken the libertarian free market approach to Internet access in a dramatic leap away from the authoritarian Marcos era of the 1980s.

The Deregulation “Miracle”

Until 1995, the Philippines Long Distance Telephone Company (PLDT) maintained a 60-year plus government-sanctioned monopoly on telecommunications services. Its performance was less than compelling. Establishing landline service took up to 10 years on a lengthy waiting list. Getting a phone line was the first problem, making sure it worked consistently was another. Just over 10 years after the United States formally broke up AT&T and the Bell System, the government in Manila approved RA 7925 – the Public Telecommunications Policy Act of 1995, breaking PLDT’s monopoly and establishing a level playing ground for each of 11 regions across the country and its many islands in which private companies could compete with PLDT for customers.

philippinesTo attract investment and competition, the government declared all value-added services like Internet access deregulated and guaranteed the complete privatization of all government telecom facilities no later than 1998. It also initially limited the number of companies that could compete against PLDT in each region to two new entrants. The government felt that would be necessary to attract competitors that knew they would have to quickly invest millions, if not billions, to build telecom infrastructure in the Philippines. It would be hard to make a case for investment in a region where a half-dozen companies all engaged in a price war fighting for customers while stringing new telephone lines and building cell towers.

To prevent cherry-picking only the wealthiest areas of the country, the government declared its desire for a privately funded nationwide telecom network and used the 11 regions, combining urban and rural areas in each, to get it. Competitors were required to support at least 300,000 landlines and 400,000 cellular lines in each region. That assured new networks could not simply be built in urban areas, bypassing smaller communities. After building their networks, companies largely operated on their own in a mostly-free deregulated market, slightly overseen by the National Telecommunications Commission (NTC) — the Philippines equivalent of the FCC.

The early years of telecom deregulation seemed promising. PLDT, much like AT&T in the United States, kept the lion’s share of customers (67.24%) after deregulation took effect, but new competitors quickly captured one-third of the market. But with lax regulation and oversight, some of the Philippines’ most powerful families, many benefiting under years of the Marcos dictatorship, managed to gain influence in the newly competitive Philippines telecom business. In the United States, telecom competition meant a choice between Sprint, MCI, AT&T or others. In the Philippines, you dealt with one or two of nine powerful family owned conglomerates, each operating with a foreign-owned telecom partner. It would be like choosing between companies owned by the Rockefellers, the Astors, the Carnegies, or the Morgans.

pldtThe NTC remained more “hands-off” than the FCC, avoiding significant involvement in critical interconnection issues — how competing telephone companies handle calls from subscribers of a competing provider. That was last an issue in the United States in the early 1900s, where rare independent competitors to the rapidly consolidating Bell System faced a telecom giant that initially refused to handle calls from customers of other companies. American regulators eventually demanded interconnection policies that guaranteed customers could reach any other telephone customer, regardless of what company handled their service. In the Philippines, the NTC eventually mandated less-demanding access, allowing companies to charge long distance rates to reach customers of other companies. In the 1990s, it was not uncommon to find businesses maintaining at least two telephone lines with different companies to escape long distance expenses and stay accessible to all of their potential customers.

PLDT initially fought the opening of the marketplace but benefited handsomely from it once it took effect. The company got away with setting sky-high interconnection rates to connect calls from other smaller providers to its customers. It also made access to its network a minefield of bureaucracy and often required competitors to sign unfair revenue sharing agreements.

It is Cheaper to Buy Out the Competition Instead of Competing With It

competition-issues-in-philippine-telecommunications-sector-challenges-and-recommendations-3-638

(Image Courtesy: Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos/LIRNEasia)

The investment community eventually balked at the cost of constructing competing telecommunications networks, especially after the dot.com crash in 2000, and a drumbeat for industry consolidation through mergers and acquisitions quickly grew too loud to ignore. Investors fumed over the amount of money being spent by providers to meet their service obligations in the 11 subdivided regions. Instead of building redundant or competing infrastructure, allowing competitors to merge would cut costs and enhance investor return. The NTC let the marketplace decide, as did the government, and it led to a frenzy of industry consolidation that ran far beyond what the FCC and American Justice Department would ever tolerate.

In 2011, the government backed a colossal merger that brought together the wireless networks of Pilipino Telephone Corporation, PLDT, and Smart under the PLDT brand. The three former competitors became one and controlled 66.3% of the Philippine’s wireless customers. The merger was comparable to allowing Verizon to buy out Sprint.

Additional mergers in response to the super-sized PLDT rapidly reduced the competitiveness of Philippine’s telecommunications marketplace to a duopoly. Just two companies — PLDT, Globe, and their respective house brands — dominate landline, DSL, cable, and wireless telecommunications service in the Philippines. The investment community celebrated the deal’s approval as a lucrative goldmine of future revenue gains from a less competitive market.

Philippine Broadband: Hey, It’s at Least Moderately Better Than Afghanistan

competition-issues-in-philippine-telecommunications-sector-challenges-and-recommendations-8-638

(Image courtesy: Mary Grace Mirandilla-Santos/LIRNEasia)

Broadband performance, under any measure other than financial success, has proved abysmal for Philippine consumers and businesses. The country’s broadband speeds are among the worst in the world, only beating Afghanistan in many speed tests. Look the other wayoversight led to a bribery scandal in 2007 that threatened to bring down the government. Officials exploring the development of a National Broadband Network were accused of soliciting kickbacks from Chinese equipment vendor ZTE, which would have been responsible for supplying equipment for the project. The government canceled the project as the scandal widened and some of the principals left the country or in at least one case were kidnapped.

Eight years later, broadband in the Philippines would be considered a North American nightmare. The free market approach has led to free-flowing profits and a profound lack of marketplace competition, with broadband ripoffs and broken promises rampant across the country.

Although both PLDT and Globe Telecom are spending large sums on infrastructure, much of it benefits their very profitable wireless networks and business customers. Despite the investments, residential customers are stuck with some of the world’s worst broadband speeds and performance.

An independent Quality of Service test revealed the bad news all around:

The findings of the Philippine QoSE tests were expected, but nevertheless still disappointing.

The best performing among the three ISPs delivered only 21% of actual versus advertised speed on average. This same ISP also offered at least 256kbps download speed (generally accepted definition of broadband) only 67% of the whole time it was tested, falling short of the required 80% service reliability.

The Broadband Commission defines the core concepts of broadband as an “always-on service” with high capacity “able to carry lots of data per second.” While there is no official definition of broadband locally, the Philippine Digital Strategy 2011-2016 defines broadband Internet service as 2Mbps download speed.

Finally, like the last nail in the coffin, Philippine ISPs performed the worst in terms of value for money when compared to select providers in South Asia and Southeast Asia. The highest value given by any of the three Philippine ISPs tested was a measly 22kbps per US dollar. This figure is too low when compared to similar mobile broadband ISPs that offer 173kbps per dollar in Jakarta, Indonesia and 445kbps per dollar in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

These results have huge implications on truth in advertising, consumer welfare, and the need for appropriate regulation.

My DSL Service is So Bad I Prefer 3GB Usage-Capped Slow Wireless Instead

senloren

Legarda

Home DSL broadband is so bad that customers have increasingly dropped service in favor of tightly managed wireless service. Companies report DSL customer losses over the past few years, with no end in sight.

The telecom regulator has generally just shrugged its shoulders at the situation, suggesting competition between equally poor providers will somehow resolve the problem. That view is applauded by service providers who claim the Internet is “just a value-added service” not essential to basic living needs. But consumer groups wonder why providers are allowed to make false advertising claims about the speed of their service with no repercussions. A range of position papers appealing to the government to create a meaningful minimum broadband speed have been introduced and some are being pushed by members of the Philippine Senate.

Senator Loren Legarda joined scores of other frustrated customers complaining about unreliable and expensive Internet in the country. In a 2014 hearing Legarda complained she had once again lost her DSL Internet connection in her office and her wireless connection was so slow it was unusable.

“As we speak now, there is no Internet connection in my office,” Legarda said. “I received a message this morning from my staff on my way here because I may be e-mailing, etc. And for someone whose deadline was yesterday, I always want things done fast and I’m sure many of you want that efficiency too to serve our people better.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ANC Poor Broadband Internet 5-14.flv

ANC aired this story about Sen. Legarda’s broadband problems and how Philippines’ providers oversell their networks back in 2014. (4:56)

We Oversold Our Networks So Sue Us, Except You Can’t

Providers blame the problem on oversold networks that attempt to manage too many paying customers on an inadequate network. In other words, they blame themselves with little fear any regulator will create problems for them.

Wireless service is no panacea either. Customers in the Philippines face draconian “fair use policies” on so-called “unlimited plans” that leave them throttled after 1GB of usage per day or 3GB of usage per month, whichever happens first. Providers suggest the policy is a benefit, promising them a better user experience. Besides, they suggest, even those that run into the speed throttle can still browse the Internet, albeit at as speed resembling dial-up:

Your internet speed will slow down if you use up 1GB of data for the day, or accumulate 3GB of data usage for the month.

If you hit the 1GB/day threshold, you’ll experience slower speed, but no worries because as we mentioned above, you can still surf! You’ll move up to normal speed at midnight. If you hit the 3GB/month threshold, your speed will move up to normal speed on the next calendar month (not based on bill cycle).

With a stifling usage allowance, shouldn't providers in the Philippines be offering better speeds?

With a stifling usage allowance, shouldn’t providers in the Philippines be offering better speeds?

Say Hello to the “Promo Pack” – Your Net Neutrality Nightmare Come True

Remember the scary ads from Net Neutrality proponents promising a future of Internet add-ons that would charge you to surf theme-based websites without facing network slowdowns or stingy usage caps if Net Neutrality protections were not forthcoming? In the Philippines, the nightmare came true. Mobile providers sell added cost “promo packs” that bundle extra throttle-free usage with theme-based apps. A package with Spotify runs about $6.50US a month and includes 1GB of usage. Anyone can buy a Spotify premium membership in the Philippines for around $4.37US without the add-on. But even worse are app-based promo packs that bundle free-to-download-and-use apps in the U.S. with special designated usage allowances.

Want to use Google Maps on your wireless provider? A “promo pack” including it costs around $2.17 a month and includes 300MB of usage. That money doesn’t go to Google — it stays in the pocket of the provider – Globe Networks. Twitter will set you back $4.37US a month and includes 600MB of usage, which seems odd for a short message service when contrasted with an identically-priced promo pack for Facebook, that needs the extra usage allowance more than Twitter likely would. But then they also get you for Facebook Messenger, which costs an extra $2.17US per month and comes with its own usage allowance — 300MB.

"What If" actually "Is" in the Philippines.

“What If” actually “Is” in the Philippines.

Globe-Telecom3While segmenting out popular mobile apps for special treatment, Philippine mobile providers have also taken Verizon and AT&T’s lead, pushing plans like myLIFESTYLE that bundle unlimited text and phone calls with expensive data plans.

Lifestyle Promo Packs:

Lifestyle Bundle

Price (Philippine Peso)

Consumable MBs/GBs

Description

Spotify

299

1GB

Premium membership to Spotify, with 1GB data
Work

299

1GB

Access to Gmail, Yahoo Mail, Evernote, + 10GB Globe Cloud Storage
Explore Bundle

99

300MB

Access to Agoda, Trip Advisor, Cebu Pacific, PAL
Navigation Bundle

99

300MB

Access to Waze, Grab Taxi, Google Maps, MMDA app, Accuweather
Shopping Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Zalora, Amazon, Ebay, OLX, Ayosdito
Facebook

199

600MB

Access to Facebook
Twitter

199

600MB

Access to Twitter
Viber

99

300MB

Access to Viber
FB Messenger

99

300MB

Access to FB Messenger
Chat Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Viber, Whats App, FB Messenger, Kakao Talk, Line, WeChat
Photo Bundle

299

1GB

Access to Instagram, Photogrid, Photorepost, Instasize

Extra Add-ons:

Basic Price Description
Consumable 100 Stackable Amounts of P100 denomination consumables
Unli Duo 299 Unlimited Calls to Landline/duo
Unli Txt All 299 Unlimited Texts to other networks
Unli iSMS 399 Unlimitend International SMS to one intl. number
Unli IDD 999 Unli IDD calls to one intl. number
DUO International 499 Unlimited calls to US landlines

The Philippines Should Regulate Under the American Example vs. The Philippines Should Not Regulate Under the American Example (It’s Obama’s Fault)

Lincoln_MemorialProviders in the Philippines have learned a lot from America’s telecommunications lobbyists. Their advocacy campaigns revolve around the theme that the United States has the best wireless networks in the world, developed under a largely hands-off regulatory philosophy that the Philippine government should follow.

The government and regulators largely acquiesced to that campaign until this year, when that idea came back to haunt providers. Earlier this year, the Obama Administration and the FCC began taking a more hands-on approach to telecom regulation after recognizing the marketplace is not as competitive as providers suggest. Strong Net Neutrality enforcement, limits on mergers and acquisitions and strong signals marketplace abuses would no longer be tolerated are now being pushed in Washington by the White House and the Federal Communications Commission. Providers in the Philippines no longer advocate following the American model, but it may now be too late.

obamaThe NTC is close to issuing new minimum broadband speed and performance standards and is now listening to Filipino consumers that launched Democracy.net.ph to fight usage caps in the Philippines back in 2011. The NTC may soon require providers advertise average speeds and performance, not “up to” speeds nobody actually receives. Those getting poor service would be entitled to refunds or rebates.

That could be the first step towards a more activist NTC that may have learned the lesson that listening to the broken promises of better service through deregulation has resulted in some of the worst broadband performance the world has to offer. The Philippines took the advocacy arguments of the deregulation crowd and doubled down, not only allowing providers to lie and distort in their advertising, but also permitting massive industry consolidation reducing the choice for most Filipinos to just two providers for almost all telecommunications services. The government looked the other way as corruption turned into a scandal and today it is left with two very powerful conglomerates that deliver third world Internet access while pocketing the generous proceeds.

A Better Way to Better Broadband

A deregulated, free market only works where healthy competition exists. Too few players always leads to reduced innovation, poorer service at higher prices, and a corporate fortress deterring would-be competitors that are unlikely to be able to survive in a fair, competitive fight. For the Philippines (and by extension the United States) to fully benefit from healthy competition, large conglomerates must be broken up and further mergers must be prevented above all else. Until sufficient competition can self-regulate the marketplace, strong oversight is necessary to protect consumers from the abuses that always come from monopolies and duopolies. Charging wireless customers for free apps and suggesting 3GB of usage is equal to unlimited broadband are two places to start cracking down, quickly followed by an investigation into where investment dollars are being spent and for whose benefit. It seems like customers are not reaping any rewards in return for high-priced service.

The Philippine government should also continue exploring a National Broadband Network strategy that puts the country’s broadband needs above the profit motivations of the current duopoly. Governments build roads and bridges, airports and railways. Broadband is another infrastructure project that needs to be developed in the public interest. If private companies want to be a part of that effort, that is wonderful. But they should not be dictating the terms or holding the country back from what may be the biggest scandal of all — broadband that barely performs better than what the Taliban can get these days in Helmand province.

Consumers Storm FCC With 2,000+ Net Neutrality Complaints About Data Caps, Poor Service

angry guyIt didn’t take long for consumers to start flooding the Federal Communications Commission with thousands of complaints about poor Internet service, usage caps, and speed throttles.

The complaints arrived as the FCC began formally enforcing Net Neutrality by reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, subject to oversight by the federal agency.

Consumers used the occasion to deluge the commission about the sorry state of Internet access in the United States, whether it constituted a Net Neutrality violation or not.

National Journal obtained a sample of 50 complaints through a Freedom of Information Act request and it was clear data caps were at or near the top of the complaints list and consumers wasted no time slamming cable and phone companies over the practice.

“Our data should not be capped at 350[GB]!!!!” one consumer pleaded, likely a Suddenlink or Mediacom customer, which both have 350GB caps on certain speed tiers. “Please, please make data caps illegal!!”

fccNo more Netflix and Hulu watching for this family: “I have to tell my kids to stop using YouTube and other services and stuff they need for school so we don’t go over the cap,” another consumer wrote, explaining that their Internet-enabled home security camera uses up a significant amount of their monthly data. “By Comcast having this data cap, I don’t have a open Internet … I also think this data cap is very inaccurate, it goes up without anybody being home, and sometimes by a lot.”

Comcast also received heat for poor performing broadband service, with one customer forced to use Wi-Fi at a local McDonalds to take an online exam because Internet service at home was so poor.

“The Comcast modem is such crap that we can’t even access the Internet,” the consumer wrote. “I’m livid.”

AT&T was roasted for speed throttling its “unlimited data” wireless plan — a practice that already resulted in a $100 million fine from the FCC for misleading consumers. AT&T is appealing.

In all, the FCC reports it received about 2,000 complaints from consumers in June, the first month Net Neutrality rules took effect. The agency has just 30 days to respond to the complaints, most lodged using this online form. The FCC may be able to answer many with a form letter because poor service and usage caps are not strict violations of Net Neutrality, unless the FCC determines the practices “unreasonably interfere” with Internet access. AT&T’s speed throttling comes a lot closer to meeting that test, because many throttled customers report their wireless data service is rendered effectively unusable once throttled.

But the broad-ranging complaints may still prove useful, suggesting to the FCC stronger rules and oversight are required for a broadband market many consider barely competitive and often customer abusive.

Seeking comment, National Journal reported the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the U.S. Telecom Association, which both represent major Internet providers and have sued to overturn the regulations, declined to comment on the complaints.

Comcast’s New $15/Mo ‘Sling TV Killer’ Stream Video Package Likely Exempt from Its Usage Cap

streamComcast will challenge cord cutting and entice cord-nevers with an online video package of about a dozen television channels it will sell for $15 a month and likely exempt from its usage cap.

“Stream” will offer about 12 channels — almost all over the air stations including NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, Fox, The CW, Telemundo, Univision — and HBO to Comcast’s broadband customers and deliver the package over Comcast’s privately managed IP network, which it considers separate from the public Internet. That will also allow Comcast to offer on-demand programming, cloud DVR storage and access to Streampix, Comcast’s movies-on-demand feature it largely abandoned a few years ago.

Comcast’s new no-contract video service will begin in Boston by the end of summer, quickly followed by launches in Chicago and Seattle. Comcast plans to expand the service nationwide by early 2016.

Stream will target millennials and others that have turned their backs on traditional cable television. It will also directly take aim at competing Sling TV, which sells streaming cable TV channels for about $20 a month.

But at first glance, Comcast may have one up on its competition.

Comcast-LogoComcast will deliver Stream over the same network it uses for content delivery to game consoles that does not count against Comcast’s trialed usage caps. Watching competitor Sling TV does count against your Comcast usage allowance because it is delivered over the public Internet.

That advantage alone may not help Comcast overcome some of the harsh restrictions it will impose on Stream customers that could prove major turn-offs:

  • Viewing must be done from a web browser, tablet, or phone. Stream will not be available on TV-connected platforms like Roku or Apple TV;
  • Viewers must stay inside the home to access live streamed content;
  • Customers must subscribe to Comcast High Speed Internet service to buy Stream;
  • Only Comcast customers inside a Comcast service area can subscribe;
  • There are no cable networks offered, except HBO, for now.

Customers will be able to sign up for Stream (and cancel it) over the web with no service technician visit needed. Customers can cancel anytime.

Search This Site:

Contributions:

Recent Comments:

  • T.J.: Whoops, chose the wrong bill when going back thru, gotta love smart phones. Gotta get rid of this windows phone, my bad. Lol....
  • Dave Hancock: T. J.: What is your point??? H.R. 1301 is an entirely different bill! It relates to restrictions on Amateur Radio towers. That is quite a differ...
  • T.J.: https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/house-bill/1301/cosponsors Read it and weep....
  • Dave Hancock: BUT: Those in favor of this are ALL REPUBLICANS!!...
  • T.J.: So I have one thing only to say about this is that this isn't all Republicans vs democrats, it is a small group, there many Republicans opposing this ...
  • Dave Hancock: This could (and should be) a SIGNIFICANT ELECTION ISSUE. A direct attack on consumers via unregulated internet rates! My note already in to my "re...
  • Joe V.: I wonder Phil how much longer are Americans going to continue to put up with s**t like this before we finally as a collective come together and realiz...
  • Web Stuff: I live in a CenturyLink service area and my dealings with them lead me to believe that they are not really interested in having customers... They onl...
  • shelley Haitko: 2/9/16 Decades changed their format recently , Will classic shows be seen on weekends? Comcast New Haven, Ct. 06515 won,t let me have you guys. Shelle...
  • Telephone Man: Okay I am in no way sticking up for this practice however I am going to explain something to all that do not know how this little game works. Let m...
  • BobInIllinois: Comcast owns 49% of Midco, per Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midco...
  • Tony: Data caps have been updated. Better, but still annoying. Web Surfer - 200GB G5 - 450GB G10 - 550GB G15 - 700GB Dream 60 - 800GB Dream 100 - 10...

Your Account: