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Commentary: CPUC Unanimously Approves Charter-TWC-Bright House Merger

charter twcCharter Communications could not have closer friends than the commissioners on the California Public Utilities Commission who unanimously voted in favor of the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable while some almost apologized for bothering the cable company with pesky deal conditions.

CPUC president Michael Picker quickly dispensed with the glaring omission of a sunset provision on Charter’s three-year voluntary commitment to abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order by inviting his fellow commissioners to add it back for Charter’s benefit. How nice of him. The cable company lobbyists in attendance at today’s hearing did not even need to ask.

Picker’s review of the merger benefits effectively recited a Charter press release and he seemed genuinely pleased with himself for making it all possible. For example, the CPUC considered the addition of a provision allowing consumers to buy their own cable modems and set-top boxes without a penalty from their provider “unprecedented,” while never mentioning they failed to adopt recommendations that customers be given a discount for providing their own equipment. Score Charter, which can continue to collect modem fees built into the price of its broadband service even when you provide your own.

Dampier

Dampier

New Charter’s “exciting” commitment to upgrade to 300Mbps by 2019 sounds good, until one realizes Time Warner Cable was committed to finishing their own 300Mbps upgrade at least one year earlier, and at a lower cost to customers. In fact, while California celebrates 300Mbps by 2019, thanks to the efforts of Stop the Cap! and the New York Public Service Commission, Charter is required to be ready to offer gigabit service across the state that same year. See what is possible when you actually try, CPUC?

The commissioners repeatedly thanked Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable while ignoring the consumer groups that contributed opposing comments and tangible suggestions to improve benefits for consumers — almost entirely ignored by the CPUC. That will cost Californians dearly and borders on regulatory malpractice. If the CPUC required California to at least enjoy the same benefits other state utility regulators won for their constituents, Californians would get a substantially better deal. Instead, the CPUC insisted on giving California and even worse deal than the FCC, by granting Charter’s right to gouge customers with usage caps and usage billing in three years, even after the FCC agreed to seven years of cap-free Internet. Mr. Picker and the other commissioners owe California an explanation for letting them down, and the scandal-plagued CPUC needs to demonstrate it is reforming after the shameful performance of its former chairman Michael Peevey.

“Today was a travesty for Californian consumers, and frankly we were shocked to watch ostensibly independent commissioners carry water for Charter Communications,” said Stop the Cap! president Phillip Dampier. “We saw clear evidence of a commission more concerned about Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable than for the average citizens of California that will face higher cable bills, time limits on unlimited Internet access, and a longer wait for upgrades as a direct result of today’s decision. Consumer groups like Stop the Cap! brought clear and convincing evidence to the commission that the benefits of this merger have time limits and plenty of fine print. We offered concrete suggestions on how to improve the deal for consumers — ideas accepted in other states, but the CPUC clearly wasn’t interested in anything that might make Charter uncomfortable.”

California Dreamin’: Will Regulators Approve Tougher Charter/Time Warner Merger Conditions Today?

charter twc bhAll signs are pointing to a relative cake walk for Charter Communications’ executives this afternoon as they seek final approval from the California Public Utilities Commission to acquire Time Warner Cable systems in the state, with the help of an Administrative Law Judge that is recommending approval with a minimum of conditions.

In fact, the strongest condition Charter may have to accept in California came by accident. As part of Charter’s lobbying effort, it proposed a set of voluntary conditions it was prepared to accept, claiming to regulators these conditions would represent benefits of approving the transaction. One of those was a temporary three-year commitment to abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, which among other things bans paid prioritization (Internet fast lanes), intentionally blocking lawful Internet content, and speed throttling your Internet connection.

Somewhere along the way, someone forgot to include the language that sunsets (or ends) Charter’s voluntary commitment after three years.

Without it, Charter will have to abide by the terms of the FCC’s Open Internet Order forever.

cpucSoon after recognizing the change in language, Charter’s lawyers appealed to the CPUC to correct what it called a “drafting error.”

“[New Charter does] not seek modification of the second sentence, which matches their voluntary commitments, but believe[s] that the three-year limitation in the second sentence was intended to— and should—apply to the first sentence as well,” Charter’s lawyers argued two weeks ago.

In other words, the Administrative Law Judge’s apparent attempt to ‘cut and paste’ Charter’s own press release-like voluntary deal commitments into his personal recommendation went horribly wrong. Charter’s lawyers prefer to call it an “intent to track” the company’s voluntary commitments. Either way, Charter’s lawyers all call the new language unfair.

“Holding New Charter indefinitely to FCC rules even after the FCC’s rules are invalidated or modified, and irrespective of future market conditions or the practices or rules governing New Charter’s competitors, would be a highly unconventional requirement,” the lawyers complained.

That provides valuable insight into how “New Charter” is likely to feel about Net Neutrality three years from now. Charter’s lawyers argue it would be unfair to hold them to “invalidated” rules — the same ones the company itself has voluntarily embraced as a condition of approval, but only for now.

Remarkably, in the final revision of the Administrative Law Judge’s recommendations to the CPUC recommending approval, the language that is keeping Charter’s lawyers up at night is still there:

New Charter shall fully comply with all the terms and conditions of the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet Order, regardless of the outcome of any legal challenge to the Open Internet Order. In addition, for a period of not less than three years from the closing of the Transaction, New Charter (a) will not adopt fees for users to use specific third-party Internet applications; (b) will not engage in zero-rating; (c) will not engage in usage-based billing; (d) will not impose data caps; and (e) will submit any Internet interconnection disputes not resolvable by good faith negotiations on a case-by-case basis.

Charter's new service area, including Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers.

Charter’s new service area, including Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers.

If it remains intact through the vote expected this afternoon, New Charter will have to permanently abide by the FCC’s Open Internet Order, with no end date. That condition will apply in California, and because of most-favored state status, also in New York.

Stop the Cap!’s recommendations to the CPUC are also in the same document, although our views were not shared by the judge:

Stop the Cap! objects to [New Charter’s] 3-year moratorium on data caps and usage based pricing for broadband services. It argues that such bans should be made permanent or, if not permanent, should last at least 7 years in parallel with the lifespan of the conditions imposed in the FCC’s approval of the parent company merger. In addition, Stop the Cap! objects to what it asserts will be a major price increase for existing Time Warner customers when Charter’s pricing plans replace Time Warner’s pricing plans.

More broadly, Stop the Cap! president Phillip Dampier called the revised recommendations to approve the deal underwhelming and disappointing.

“By window-dressing what is essentially Charter’s own voluntary offer to the CPUC, the commission is continuing to miss a golden opportunity to win deal conditions that will meaningfully benefit Californian consumers that will otherwise get little more than higher cable and broadband bills,” Dampier told Communications Daily. “Virtually everything Charter is promising customers is already available or soon will be from Time Warner Cable, often for less money. Time Warner Cable committed to offering its customers 300Mbps speeds, no usage caps or usage billing, and all-digital service through its Maxx upgrade program, expected to be complete by the end of 2017 or 2018. The CPUC is proposing to allow New Charter to wait until 2019 to provide 300Mbps service and potentially cap Internet service three years after that, four years less than what the FCC is demanding.”

Among the conditions Charter will be expected to fulfill in return for approval of its merger in California:

  • Within a year of the closing of the merger deal, New Charter must boost broadband download speeds for customers on their all-digital platform to at least 60Mbps, an upgrade that is largely already complete.
  • Within 30 months, New Charter must upgrade all households in its California service territory to an all-digital platform with download speeds of not less than 60Mbps, an upgrade that has already been underway for a few years.
  • By Dec. 31, 2019, New Charter shall offer broadband Internet service with speeds of at least 300Mbps download to all households with current broadband availability from New Charter in its California network. Time Warner Cable essentially promised to do the same by early 2018, with many of its customers already getting up to 300Mbps in Southern California.
  • While Charter talks about a bright future for the Time Warner customers joining its family, the company has not done a great job maintaining and upgrading its own cable systems in parts of California. Many smaller communities still only receive analog cable TV from Charter, with no broadband option at all. Therefore, the CPUC is giving New Charter three years to deploy 70,000 new broadband “passings” to current analog-only cable service areas in Kern, Kings, Modoc, Monterey, San Bernardino and Tulare counties. But the CPUC is giving New Charter a break, only requiring them to offer up to 100Mbps service in these communities.
  • Time Warner Cable and Bright House customers in California will be able to keep their current broadband service plans for up to three years. Customers will also be allowed to buy their own cable modems and set-top boxes, but there is no requirement New Charter compensate customers who do with a service discount.
  • Within six months of the deal closing, New Charter must offer Lifeline phone discounts within its service territory in California.
  • New Charter must print and distribute brochures explaining the need for backup power to keep phone service working if electricity is interrupted. Those brochures must be available in multiple languages including, but not limited to, English, Spanish, Chinese and Vietnamese, as well as in accessible formats for visually impaired customers.

The CPUC is also expected to adopt Charter’s own voluntary commitments not to impose usage caps, usage billing, modem fees, and other customer-unfriendly practices for three years, a point that drew strong criticism from Stop the Cap! and the California Office of Ratepayer Advocates for being inadequate.

Both groups proposed that bans on data caps and usage billing should stay in place “until there is effective competition in Southern California, or no shorter than seven years after the decision is issued, whichever is later.”

ORA’s program supervisor Ana Maria Johnson believes the proposed changes don’t go far enough to “mitigate the harms that the merger will likely cause, especially in Southern California.”

Dampier was surprised how little the CPUC seemed to be asking of New Charter, especially in comparison to regulators in New York.

“The New York Public Service Commission did a more thorough job protecting consumers by insisting on faster and better upgrades, including readiness for gigabit service, and the same level of broadband service for all of New Charter’s customers in New York,” Dampier argued. “It also demanded and won meaningful expansion in rural broadband, low-cost Internet access, protection of New York jobs, and improved customer service. It is remarkable to us the CPUC did not insist on at least as much for California.”

The CPUC is expected to take a final vote on the merger deal this afternoon, starting at 12:30pm ET/9:30am PT and will be webcast. It is the 20th item on the agenda.

Stop the Cap! Still Fighting Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger in California

stop-the-capStop the Cap! continues the fight for a better deal for Time Warner Cable customers that could soon end up as Charter Communications customers, if the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) approves the merger.

While the Federal Communications Commission formally approved the deal last week, California has yet to sign off on the transaction, giving consumer advocates like Stop the Cap! an opportunity to recommend the state regulator impose stronger consumer-friendly deal conditions that guarantee customers their share of the anticipated windfall in “deal benefits” that shareholders and executives of the companies involved are likely to receive.

Our California coordinator Matthew Friedman has been educating the CPUC about the true nature of data caps and usage-based billing, and sharing our view that Charter’s promised merger deal benefits are illusory, offering little more than what Time Warner Cable already offers its Maxx-upgraded service areas. In fact, Time Warner’s ongoing commitment to not impose compulsory data caps or usage billing is likely to be canceled by Charter Communications, which has only agreed not to impose such billing schemes on customers for three years.

Even worse, future Charter customers are likely to pay higher broadband bills after Charter imposes its regular prices on Time Warner Cable customers — prices often higher than what Time Warner charges for similar services. Although Time Warner customers have been able to negotiate a better deal for themselves after threatening to cancel, Stop the Cap! anticipates Charter will not be as generous with those customers in the future.

At the minimum, Stop the Cap! is recommending the CPUC either permanently ban compulsory usage caps and usage billing from Charter, or add a competition test that will allow such billing only where consumers can switch to a competitor that offers comparable unlimited broadband service.

Charter's broadband "deal"

Charter’s broadband “deal”

The loss of [Time Warner’s] commitment [to always offer unlimited broadband options to consumers] could result in the following harms, according to Friedman:

  1. New Charter’s commitment to provide low cost broadband will become completely voluntary and unenforceable;
  2. increased broadband pricing resulting in decreased demand for broadband;
  3. New Charter will be able to circumvent Net Neutrality rules;
  4. New Charter will be able to engage in a multitude of anticompetitive behaviours, increasing the cost and reducing the attractiveness of competing video content from edge providers, thus lessening the demand for high-speed broadband access to the Internet, and thus running counter to Section 706(a)’s mandate to promote competition in broadband services;
  5. innovation and investment will potentially decrease significantly;
  6. network security can be adversely affected; and,
  7. Californians, especially low-income Californians, may lose access to education opportunities.
We're not drinking "New Charter's" Kool-Aid

We’re not drinking “New Charter’s” Kool-Aid

Stop the Cap! (and the Office of Ratepayer Advocates as well) has offered a reasonable option of requiring a competition test to sunset the prohibition on data caps and usage based pricing,” wrote Friedman. “This suggestion is based on Charter’s own expert testimony and [the conditions] must be rewritten per these suggestions if it is to fulfill multiple statutory requirements.”

Stop the Cap! also advocates that Time Warner Cable customers that purchased their own cable modems to avoid Time Warner’s modem fees deserve an ongoing bill credit for providing their own equipment, because Charter builds the cost of its modem into the price of broadband service.

“Charter already bakes the price of the modem rental into the monthly cost of the plan,” Friedman noted. “New Charter [should be required] to offer a discount to customers who bring their own modems. Charter currently allows customers to bring their own modems… they just continue to charge those customers for a Charter modem that the customer never uses.”

Although Charter’s pledge to increase broadband speeds for Time Warner customers seems laudatory, in fact Charter’s proposed service offerings also represent a significant rate increase for broadband customers who don’t need or want 60Mbps service. They won’t have much choice after Charter imposes its own plans and pricing, which are now limited to 60 or 100Mbps options for most customers, at prices starting at $60 a month.

charter twc“Clearly these TWC customers are materially much worse off under New Charter than TWC,” Friedman told the CPUC. “Equally clear is that Charter’s ‘Simplified Pricing’ (perhaps more accurately described as ‘Fewer Options and Higher Prices’) is far from a public benefit. This massive price increase will affect literally every stand-alone-broadband TWC customer other than the few who qualify for the School Lunch/Senior Assistance plan. While the low-cost School Lunch/Senior Assistance plan is great for the narrowly targeted group of consumers who manage to qualify, roughly doubling the cost of broadband for every other standalone customer more than offsets the combined value of every other ‘benefit’ that the applicants allege will come from this transfer.”

Stop the Cap! also advocates that the CPUC guarantee Charter customers have a choice about the broadband speeds they need and the amount they have to pay for Internet access.

“New Charter should be required to retain TWC’s pricing and plan structure in perpetuity, for both new and existing TWC customers. TWC customers should retain the ability to switch back and forth between TWC’s cheaper, larger variety of plans,” Friedman wrote. “New Charter should be required to continue TWC’s practice of increasing customer speeds as technology advances with no
accompanying price increase.”

Although Charter’s lobbying efforts promote improved service for Time Warner Cable customers, it is our view that once one examines the full scope and impact of Charter’s proposal, customers will be worse off under Charter than they would be staying with Time Warner Cable.

“TWC stands out in its field for its customer-friendly policies such as providing discounts for those who own their own modems, its public commitment to refuse to impose data caps or
usage based pricing even in the face of pressure from Wall Street to do so, and the creation of its TWC Roku App to allow customers to avoid set-top box rental fees,” argued Friedman. “This transfer, as currently conditioned, creates a net public benefit harm, not a benefit, or even a status quo.”

Analysis: FCC, Justice Dept. Ready to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

charter twc bhThe Justice Department and FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler are prepared to accept a massive $55 billion merger between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable, and Bright House Networks, but at a cost of stringent conditions governing the creation of America’s second largest cable conglomerate.

In a joint agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and the FCC, Charter executives have agreed to do nothing to harm online video competition or implement usage caps or usage-based billing for at least seven years. Charter will also be forced to broaden its cable service to reach at least two million additional homes, some already served by other providers, setting the stage for potential head-to-head competition between two closely-matched competitors.

The deal will directly affect 19.4 million customers of the three companies, which will eventually combine under the Charter Communications brand name and marketing philosophy — selling customers simplified television, phone, and broadband packages that reduce customer options. Little is expected to change for the rest of 2016, however, with Time Warner Cable and Bright House likely to continue operations under existing packaging and pricing until sometime in 2017. Technicians told Stop the Cap! earlier in April they were told not to acquire new outfits with the Time Warner Cable logo and branding, and the cable company is also making preparations to gradually repaint its massive fleet of vans and service vehicles with the Charter logo.

President Obama Expected To Nominate Rep. Mel Watt For Director Of The Federal Housing Finance Agency

Wheeler

Most of the concessions seemed to have originated from FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, who has been one of the strongest proponents of online video competition, improved broadband, and direct head-to-head competition between cable operators. The Justice Department focused its attention on challenging the cable industry’s almost-united front against online video competition. Under former CEO Glenn Britt’s leadership, Time Warner Cable was considered “the industry leader” in contract language that guaranteed it would share the lowest price negotiated by any other cable, satellite, telephone company or online video provider. Those agreements also often included clauses that restricted programmers from putting streamed programming online for non-subscribers. That explains why cord-cutters frequently run into barriers watching networks online unless they can prove they are already a pay-TV customer.

Under conditions from the Justice Department, those sections of agreements with Charter, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks will become invalid and unenforceable. But that doesn’t mean restrictions will disappear overnight. Comcast, Cox, Cablevision, and other cable companies also enforce similar conditions which will be unaffected by the Justice Department decision, at least for now. But the precedent has sent shudders across an industry concerned about protecting its still-profitable cable TV business, under assault from increased programming costs and a greater reluctance by consumers to tolerate annual rate increases.

analysisGene Kimmelman, chief executive of consumer interest group Public Knowledge, told the Wall Street Journal the conditions were “a clear signal to the content industry and entertainment companies that the enforcement agencies are giving them a green light to grow online video and experiment as a direct competitor to cable, and they will prevent cable from interfering.”

Of greater interest to consumers are the deal conditions proposed by Chairman Wheeler. As Stop the Cap! reported almost a year ago, sources told us the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if companies like Comcast imposed them on customers nationwide. At the moment, Comcast is testing caps affecting just under 15% of their total customer base, already generating thousands of customer complaints with the FCC in response. Although Charter promised three years of cap-free service, Wheeler and his staff obviously felt it was important to send a message that they agree with cap opponents that data caps are more about preventing competition than technical need. By making long term data cap prohibition a core part of a settlement agreement with Charter, Wheeler sends a strong message to Comcast that the FCC isn’t drinking cable industry Kool Aid about the rationale for usage caps and usage billing.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

Some consumer groups worry Charter has overextended itself in debt over-acquiring other cable companies.

“New Charter will not be permitted to charge usage-based prices or impose data caps,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Second, New Charter will be prohibited from charging interconnection fees, including to online video providers, which deliver large volumes of internet traffic to broadband customers. Additionally, the Department of Justice’s settlement with Charter both outlaws video programming terms that could harm online video distributors (OVDs) and protects OVDs from retaliation– an outcome fully supported by the order I have circulated today. All three seven-year conditions will help consumers by benefitting OVD competition. The cumulative impact of these conditions will be to provide additional protection for new forms of video programming services offered over the Internet. Thus, we continue our close working relationship with the Department of Justice on this review.”

Wheeler is also intent on proving there is a viable market for cable operators overbuilding into new territories. To prove that point, Wheeler has gotten an agreement that Charter will introduce service to one million new customers where it will intrude on another operator’s service area and directly compete with it. The other provider has to already offer service at 25Mbps or greater. That could mean Charter competing directly with a cable company like Comcast or building service into an area already served by Verizon FiOS, AT&T U-verse, or another provider offering something beyond traditional DSL.

Copps

Copps

Another million customers just outside of areas served by the three cable companies may also finally get service, as Charter will be compelled to wire at least another million homes for cable service for the first time.

Despite the conditions, many consumer groups and former public officials remain unhappy the merger won approval.

“Creating broadband monopoly markets raises consumer costs, kills competition, and points a gun at the heart of the news and information that democracy depends upon,” said Michael Copps, a former Democratic commissioner at the FCC and a special adviser to the Common Cause public interest group. “FCC approval of this unnecessary merger would be an abandonment of its public interest responsibilities.”

“There’s nothing about this massive merger that serves the public interest. There’s nothing about it that helps make the market for cable TV and Internet services more affordable and competitive for Americans,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press. “Customers of the newly merged entity will be socked with higher prices as Charter attempts to pay off the nearly $27 billion debt load it took on to finance this deal. The wasted expense of this merger is staggering. For the money Charter spent to make this happen it could have built new competitive broadband options for tens of millions of people. Now these billions of dollars will do little more than line the pockets of Time Warner Cable’s shareholders and executives. CEO Rob Marcus will walk away with a $100 million golden parachute.”

Wheeler’s draft order is likely to receive a final vote in the coming days before the Commission. The only remaining holdout is California’s telecom regulator, which is expected to reach a decision by May 10.

Commerce Secretary Appoints Comcast VP to Advisory Board to Protect Free & Open Internet

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast's David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast’s David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

I got whiplash this afternoon doing a double-take on the improbable announcement that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has seen fit to appoint David Cohen, senior vice president and chief lobbyist at Comcast, to the first-ever Digital Economy Board of Advisors, which counts among its goals protecting a free and open Internet. He will be joined by AT&T’s chief lobbyist, the omnipresent Mr. James Cicconi.

Neither has much patience for Net Neutrality. Cicconi and Cohen have both lobbied Congress and regulators to keep Comcast and AT&T free from regulation and oversight, even as Comcast imposes usage-billing and data caps on a growing number of its customers, while exempting its own streaming video content from those caps. For its part, AT&T is exploring “zero rating” preferred content partners to escape the wrath of its own wireless data limits and advocates against community broadband competition.

The board will be co-chaired by Markle Foundation president Zoe Baird and Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla.

“As we develop an agenda to help the digital economy grow and thrive, it is critical that we engage with those on the front lines of the digital revolution,” said Pritzker.

It apparently doesn’t matter that the front lines being explored are those of the allies and enemies of Net Neutrality. Putting David Cohen on the case to protect a free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to head the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Consumers are, as usual, woefully under-represented on the panel. Only Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports, is likely to solely advocate for ordinary Internet users. The rest of the panel is made up of bankers, businesspeople (including the CEO of a home shopping channel), academia, think tanks and dot.com interests:

David "I'm crushing your unlimited Internet access" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your unlimited Internet access” Cohen

  • Karen Bartleson, president-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
  • Greg Becker, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Bank and SVB Financial Group
  • Austan Goolsbee, Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business
  • Mindy Grossman, CEO and director of HSN
  • Oisin Hanrahan, co-founder and CEO of Handy
  • Sonia Katyal, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law
  • James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute
  • William Ruh, CEO of GE Digital and Chief Digital Officer for GE
  • Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft
  • Corey Thomas, president and CEO of Rapid7
  • Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
  • John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft

The Newest “Diversity Group” to Support Time Warner Cable’s Corporate Agenda Is…

NGLCC_Color_Logo_wTagTime Warner Cable has a new friend from the “diversity” community.

This week, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) announced it has a new corporate partner in Time Warner Cable.

“Time Warner Cable is excited to partner with NGLCC and we look forward to new opportunities as we expand our supplier diversity program with LGBT-owned businesses,” said David Wiehagen, TWC’s vice president and chief procurement officer. “As a long-time supporter of diversity and inclusion, we believe that working with diverse suppliers is reflective of our employee and customer population and truly benefits the business.”

What benefits the business often doesn’t benefit customers, however. Many of the groups financially supported by Time Warner Cable end up penning advocacy letters to regulators and elected officials that support the cable operator’s corporate agenda.

While a press release from the gay business organization claimed the partnership will help “elevate its supplier diversity programs among peers and colleagues,” in most cases these partnerships are more about trading favors, advocacy, and PR opportunities.

“Time Warner Cable is a leader within the telecommunications industry that stands at the forefront of diversity and inclusion initiatives,” said Justin Nelson, NGLCC co-founder and president. “We are thrilled to welcome Time Warner Cable as a corporate partner as we know their commitment to supply chain diversity is unwavering.”

In turn, the NGLCC has been an unwavering opponent of Net Neutrality, favors big telecom mergers like the failed AT&T/T-Mobile acquisition and has generally opposed expanding Internet-related consumer protection.

FCC Prepares to Approve Charter-Time Warner Cable-Bright House Merger

mergerDespite clamoring for more competition in the cable industry, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler is reportedly ready to circulate a draft order granting Charter Communications’ $55 billion dollar buyout of Time Warner Cable, with conditions.

The Wall Street Journal reported late last night the order will be reviewed by the four other commissioners at the FCC and could be subject to change before coming to a vote.

Wheeler’s order is likely to follow the same philosophical approach taken by New York State’s Public Service Commission — approving the deal but adding temporary consumer protections to blunt anti-competition concerns.

Most important for Wheeler is protecting the nascent online video marketplace that is starting to threaten the traditional cable television bundle. Dish’s Sling TV, the now defunct Aereo, as well as traditional streaming providers like Hulu and Netflix have all been frustrated by contract terms and conditions with programmers that prohibit or limit online video distribution through alternative providers. The draft order reportedly would prohibit Charter from including such clauses in its contracts with programmers.

fccCritics of the deal contend that might be an effective strategy… if Charter was the only cable company in the nation. Many cable operators include similar restrictive terms in their contracts, which often also include an implicit threat that offering cable channels online diminishes their value in the eyes of cable operators. Programmers fear that would likely mean price cuts as those contracts are renewed.

Wheeler has also advocated, vainly, that cable operators should consider overbuilding their systems to compete directly with other cable operators, something not seen to a significant degree since the 1980s. Cable operators have maintained an informal understanding to avoid these kinds of price and service wars by respecting the de facto exclusive territories of fellow operators. Virtually all cable systems that did directly compete at one time were acquired by one of the two competitors by the early 1990s. It is unlikely the FCC can or will order Charter to compete directly with other cable operators, and will focus instead on extracting commitments from Charter to serve more rural and suburban areas presently deemed unprofitable to serve.

gobble-til-you-wobbleMost of the other deal conditions will likely formalize Charter’s voluntary commitments not to impose data caps, modem fees, interconnection fees (predominately affecting Netflix) or violate Net Neutrality rules for the first three years after the merger is approved. As readers know, Stop the Cap! filed comments with the FCC asking the agency to significantly extend or make permanent those commitments as part of any approval, something sources say may be under consideration and a part of the final draft order. Stop the Cap! maintains a cable operator’s commitment to provide a better customer experience and be consumer-friendly should not carry an expiration date.

It could take a few weeks for the draft order to be revised into a final order, and additional concessions may be requested, a source told the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is still reviewing the deal. News that the FCC is prepared to accept a merger is likely to dramatically reduce any chance California regulators will reject the merger out of hand. Stop the Cap!’s Matthew Friedman is continuing discussions with the CPUC to bolster deal conditions to keep usage caps, usage-based billing, and other consumer-unfriendly charges off the backs of California customers. New York customers will automatically benefit from any additional concessions California gets from Charter, as the PSC included a most-favored state clause guaranteeing New Yorkers equal treatment. Any conditions won in California and New York may also extend to other states to unify Charter’s products and services nationwide.

An independent monitor to verify Charter is complying with deal approval conditions is likely to be part of any order approving the transaction, although critics of big cable mergers point out Comcast has allegedly thumbed its nose at conditions imposed as part of its acquisition of NBCUniversal, and only occasionally punished for doing so.

House Democrats Battle Republicans Over Broadband Rate Regulation Bill

Kinzinger

Kinzinger

Republican-sponsored H.R. 2666 — the “No Rate Regulation of Broadband Internet Access Act” — is drawing opposition from House Democrats because the measure, if it becomes law, could grant cable and telephone companies broad permanent exemption from oversight and consumer protection laws.

The bill, introduced last summer by Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), consists of a single sentence:

Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal Communications Commission may not regulate the rates charged for broadband Internet access service (as defined in the rules adopted in the Report and Order on Remand, Declaratory Ruling, and Order that was adopted by the Commission on February 26, 2015 (FCC 15–24)).

Eshoo

Eshoo

Democrats worry despite the brevity of the bill, its language is broad and sweeping, and could be interpreted by the courts to grant deregulation and freedom from oversight to telecommunications providers that already rank at the bottom of customer satisfaction scores. It would also undercut the FCC’s reclassification of broadband from an information service to a telecommunications service, subject to Title II regulations, which gave the FCC increased authority to oversee the broadband industry.

Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) has signaled her likely opposition to the Republican bill, noting the proposed law could “eviscerate the FCC’s authority to protect consumers against truth in billing practices and discriminatory data caps; to ensure broadband availability through [the Universal Service Fund] and E-Rate; to address rate-related issues in merger reviews; to ensure enforcement against paid prioritization; and other essential consumer protections.”

Several Democrats on the House Communications Subcommittee are introducing amendments that would likely keep Republican language prohibiting the FCC from directly regulating broadband prices, but also protect the power of the FCC to regulate billing practices, data caps and usage pricing, Net Neutrality, universal service requirements, merger reviews, and discriminatory and/or unfair business practices.

The Democrats are likely to have an uphill battle in a Republican-controlled House. Constituents may have more influence expressing their opposition to H.R. 2666 by reaching out to Rep. Kinzinger and the 18 Republican co-sponsors of the measure:

Net Neutrality/No Zero Rating Enforced in India: Telecom Regulator Hands Setback to Facebook

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma

A plan by Facebook to deliver free limited Internet access to India’s poor and rural communities was delivered a blow this morning after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) declared the plan would violate Net Neutrality and banned it.

TRAI’s ruling focused on the fact the proposed plan would only allow customers to access Facebook and other partnered websites the social network elected to let users access over its free service. The regulator declared no service provider in India will be allowed to offer or charge discriminatory rates for data services based on content.

The regulator relied heavily on the ISP License Agreement in its ruling, which requires subscribers to have “unrestricted access to all the content available on Internet except for such content which is restricted by the Licensor/designated authority under Law.” TRAI went further in its Net Neutrality declaration than regulators in the U.S. and parts of Europe, proclaiming price-based differentiation “would make certain content more attractive to consumers resulting in altering online behavior.” Under those terms, India has effectively banned the practice of “zero rating,” which exempts certain so-called “preferred content” from metering charges or counting against a customer’s usage allowance.

free basics“This is a big win for Indian consumers and Net Neutrality,” said Independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar. “This is a very powerful and positive first step taken by TRAI. The days of telcos controlling regulations and regulatory policy is over and it is consumers to the fore.”

Facebook’s Internet.org and its companion free mobile web service, now dubbed Free Basics, offers stripped-down web services without airtime or usage charges, targeting basic so-called “feature phones” that were common in the U.S. before smartphones. Facebook has targeted the free service on about three dozen developing countries including the Philippines, Malawi, Bangladesh, Thailand and Mongolia. India would have been Facebook’s largest market for Free Basics, until the telecom regulator effectively banned it.

In India, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s frequent entries into the debate, including a passive-aggressive OpEd widely panned in India, was seen by many as arrogant and counter-productive. Facebook’s ongoing campaign to enlist users’ active support of the project for the benefit of India’s telecom regulator created a row with the Office of the Prime Minister, that dismissed Facebook’s public relations defense of Free Basics “a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.

A misleading astroturf campaign only infuriated the government more after Facebook users (including some in the U.S.) were greeted with an invitation in their timelines to support “digital equality,” sponsored by Facebook. Regulators were flooded with form letters, only later to be informed many were misled to believe it indicated their support for Net Neutrality.

Facebook users across India (and some in the U.S.) were invited to defend "digital equality," which critics define as "opposing Net Neutrality".

Facebook users across India (and some in the U.S.) were invited by Facebook to defend “digital equality,” which critics define as “opposing Net Neutrality.”

“Facebook went overboard with its propaganda [and] convinced ‘the powers that be’ that it cannot be trusted with mature stewardship of our information society,” said Sunil Abraham, of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore.

Initially, Internet.org included Facebook and a handpicked assortment of content partners, including the BBC, that were allowed on the free service. Net Neutrality proponents accused Facebook of creating a walled garden for itself and its preferred partners, disadvantaging startups and other companies not allowed on the service.

Unlike in the United States where Net Neutrality was a cause largely fought by netizens, websites, and consumer groups, major media organizations in India helped coordinate the push for Net Neutrality. The Times of India and its language websites like Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, Ei Samay and Nav Gujarat Samay appealed to other broadcasters and publishers to remove themselves from Internet.org. NDTV, a major multi-lingual broadcaster running multiple 24-hour news channels, often promoted Net Neutrality on the air and encouraged Indians to support it.

Like in the United States, Indians faced a telecom regulator more accustomed to dealing with government officials and telecom companies. TRAI was quickly swamped with over one million comments in support of Net Neutrality, so many that invitations for future comments were moved to another government website that made it harder for consumers to address regulators. The unexpected level of support for Net Neutrality also led Facebook to change its Internet.org service and relaunch Free Basics as “an open platform.”

But websites included in the service still cannot contain data intensive product experiences, such as streaming video, high-resolution images and GIFs, videos, client or browser side caching or file and audio transfer services.

“Facebook defines the technical guidelines for Free Basics, and reserves the right to change them,” adds the SavetheInternet.in coalition. “They reserve the right to reject applicants, who are forced to comply with Facebook’s terms. In contrast they support ‘permissionless innovation’ in the US.”

In India, the argument has boiled down to whether the country would prefer a usage-limited open Internet platform for the poor or an unlimited experience for a handful of websites. TRAI prefers enforcing rules guaranteeing users can visit any website they want, even if the free service used comes with a usage cap.

It’s a major blow for Facebook and the telecom operators that were some of the service’s biggest defenders.

Net Neutrality is now law in India, where the telecom regulator exceeded the United States by completely banning zero rated services, which allow users to avoid usage charges for certain applications or websites. (2:03)

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of net neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. India's largest e-commerce portal Flipkart on April 14 scrapped plans to offer free access to its app after getting caught up in a growing row over net neutrality, with the criticism of Flipkart feeding into a broader debate on whether Internet service providers should be allowed to favour one online service over another for commercial or other reasons -- a concept known as "net neutrality". AFP PHOTO / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of Net Neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. (Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

”COAI had approached the regulator with the reasons to allow price differentiation as the move would have taken us closer to connecting the one billion unconnected citizens of India,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). “By opting to turn away from this opportunity, TRAI has ignored all the benefits of price differentiation that we had submitted as a part of the industry’s response to its consulting paper, including improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and provision of essential services among other things.”

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform. While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”

TRAI rejected industry claims that differential pricing will enable operators to bring innovative packages to the market.

India has 300 million mobile users but there are still nearly one billion Indians without Internet access. India is an important market for Facebook, with 130 million active Facebook users — second to only the United States.

Allowing Facebook to gain a foothold in rural India using zero rating was compared with British colonialism by Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder of PayTM — an Indian mobile payment system. He called Free Basics a trojan horse — “poor Internet for poor people” and referred to it as the colonial-era East India Company of the 21st century.

“India, Do u buy into this baby Internet?” Mr Sharma tweeted in December. “The East India company came with similar ‘charity’ to Indians a few years back!”

“Given that a majority of the [Indian] population are yet to be connected to the Internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting [operators] shape the users’ Internet experience,” TRAI said in its release.

Telecom operators should be able to adapt to a market that bans zero rating, analysts believe.

“Telecom service providers may not be happy with this notification,” Amresh Nanden, research director at Gartner, told NDTV News. “However, they still have the ability and freedom to create different kind of Internet access packages; as long as content is not a parameter to provide or bar access to anyone. Such practices have already started elsewhere with products such as bandwidth on demand, bandwidth calendaring etc. to create premium products.”

All India Bakchod produced several humorous mostly English language videos teaching Indians about Net Neutrality and why it’s important. It’s a familiar case for North Americans dealing with our own telecom operators. (9:07)

An update from All India Backchod last summer alerted India to an astroturf campaign underway at Facebook and telecom operators to mislead Net Neutrality supporters. (8:02)

Stop the Cap! Files Formal Opposition to Charter-TWC Merger in California

stcStop the Cap! this week formally filed our opposition to the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), citing our concerns about data caps/usage-based pricing, Internet competitiveness, affordability, and quality of service.

Matthew Friedman, Stop the Cap!’s new director of our California branch, spoke in opposition to the transaction at a public meeting held by the CPUC in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Friedman authored our formal 10,500-word opposition, particularly focusing attention on Charter’s commitment not to cap or meter broadband usage for only three years after the deal is approved.

Charter’s temporary “good behavior” commitments open Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers to the potential of the same kind of usage caps and usage pricing being tested by Comcast, with little likelihood imminent competition will give consumers alternative cap-free choices.

Stop the Cap! proposed a permanent ban on compulsory data caps with New York regulators, which was not adopted. In California, we are asking the CPUC to consider allowing Charter’s “good behavior” commitments to expire only when customers have access to near-equivalent competitors offering unlimited service options, either from resellers of Charter’s broadband network or from existing or new competitors.

It is our view usage caps and usage-based billing represent an end run around Net Neutrality and will be used to limit online video competition.

We also repeat our assertion that Charter’s commitments for Time Warner Cable customers are less compelling than the benefits of Time Warner Cable’s own ongoing upgrade program, dubbed “Maxx.” Charter has committed to providing Time Warner customers with broadband speeds up to 100Mbps. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers a maximum speed of 300Mbps — three times faster than Charter.

Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet option, available to any customer without conditions or contracts would be terminated, with customers forced to spend just under $60 for entry-level broadband service. Charter’s offers remove customer choices from the marketplace in an attempt to “simplify” pricing. But that will also force customers into packages with services they don’t want or need.

Here is our formal filing in full, also available for download:

Before the CALIFORNIA PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION

      

Re: Application 15-07-009

Charter/Time Warner/Bright House Transfer

Comments on Data Caps and Usage Based Pricing and Statement of Opposition

January 26, 2016

Stop the Cap! California Branch, Matthew Friedman

 

Stop the Cap! is a consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, usage based pricing, 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.

Executive Summary

Part 1 of this document proposes a mitigation condition relating to data caps and usage based pricing (DC/UBP) that would not sunset after an arbitrary number of years. Instead, it would sunset based on the existence of actual competition in the wireline broadband marketplace.

This document details how data caps and usage based pricing present significant and numerous harms to consumers and competition in general, and why the CPUC’s approval of this transaction would make DC/UBP much more likely to be imposed on existing Time Warner Cable subscribers. We detail TWC’s long-standing, public, and vocal commitment against imposing DC/UBP. We explain why the Commission should be particularly suspect of Charter when it comes to DC/UBP. Finally, we show that Charter’s opening testimony actually supports the mitigation condition that is being proposed here.

Stop the Cap! believes that this transaction is clearly not in the public interest, and the Commission should deny the transfer. If however, for some reason the Commission decides to approve the transfer, we respectfully submit this mitigation condition to protect Californians from one of the severe harms this merger will certainly bring.

Part 2 of this document is a broader examination of why the transaction is not in the public interest. We detail how Time Warner Cable is stronger company with superior offerings to Charter, and we show why Charter is proposing a deal that is not only not in the public interest, but a large step backwards for consumers.

The Commission should deny this transfer.

The Proposed Transaction is Not in the Public Interest

Stop the Cap! strongly believes that it’s clear that the Commission should NOT approve this transaction. The testimony of the Intervenors has shown that the “benefits” Charter is claiming are tenuous at best, if even present at all. The only real benefit of this transaction appears to be to the applicants’ shareholders, and possibly not even them.

There are an immense amount of risks, potential harms, and even certain harms that will come to consumers if this transaction is allowed to proceed–more than were present even in the Comcast/TWC scenario. The certain harms far outweigh any potential benefits.

In these comments we focus on data caps and usage based pricing in particular. These practices are almost always detrimental to consumers, as TWC management has recognized, and they shouldn’t be imposed at all. One of the negative aspects of this proposed merger is that TWC customers would lose the “no data caps EVER” pledge from TWC. If for some reason the Commission decides to approve the transfer, the loss of TWC’s anti-data cap corporate attitude must be mitigated, and in a way that matches the permanence of TWC’s current pledge.

If, however, the Commission does decide to approve this transfer, the loss of TWC’s vocal commitment to NEVER impose DC/UBP must be mitigated, and it must be mitigated in a way that matches the permanence of TWC’s commitment. Mitigation conditions that are only temporary in nature are not sufficient to offset those harms.

Proposed Mitigation Condition

New Charter shall refrain from imposing data caps and/or usage-based pricing (DC/UBP) on all of its broadband offerings. New Charter will refrain from increasing prices on non-DC/UBP plans to compensate for this mitigation condition.

This mitigation condition shall sunset when ONE of the following scenarios comes to pass; however, the condition shall sunset only for those New Charter customers for whom one of the following scenarios is true. In all other New Charter areas where none of these scenarios exist, the mitigation condition shall remain in force.

  1. There are at least three (including New Charter) competing wireline broadband providers for the area in which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition. Resellers leasing lines from New Charter may be counted as competitors only if New Charter does not impose any sort of usage based billing or data caps on the resellers.
  1. There are at least three competing broadband providers (both wired and wireless) for the area in which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition, and the wireless providers offer a non-usage-based billing plan that is no more expensive than similar non-usage-based billing plans offered by the wireline providers. Providers that offer unlimited data but throttle speed after a certain amount of data is consumed shall be considered as utilising data caps for the sake of this evaluation.

Should a New Charter customer demonstrate that the competing wireless provider is unable to supply actual broadband speed to their physical address (for instance, due to poor reception), then New Charter shall continue to offer that customer data plans not subject to DC/UBP. Additionally, New Charter shall refrain from increasing the price of this non DC/UBP plan above the cost of the comparable DC/UBP plan (before considering any data overage fees).

  1. There is a functional community-owned broadband alternative available to the customers for which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition.

This condition defines “broadband” as providing the minimum broadband speed as set by the FCC at the time of evaluation for sunsetting.

What is DC/UBP?

“Usage Based Pricing” (sometimes referred to as “Metered Billing” or “Data Caps”) is when an Internet Service Provider places an upper limit on the amount of data a customer can use in a given month. Typically in wireline internet situations, if the customer goes over their monthly allowance, they are charged an additional fee for a set amount of additional data. If this additional data allotment is used, the customer is charged again for a second allotment, and so on until the monthly billing period ends. For instance, Comcast charges its data capped customers $10 for each additional 50GB used.[1] A good way to understand DC/UBP is to begin with what it is not.

DC/UBP is NOT about network management

This assertion has been debunked by scientific research for almost ten years,[2] and now even ISPs themselves are acknowledging the same. In January 2015, National Cable and Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell told a Minority Media and Telecommunications Association audience that while a lot of people had tried to label the cable industry’s interest in the issue as about congestion management, “That’s wrong,” he said. “Our principal purpose is how to fairly monetize a high fixed cost.”[3] However, even this explanation is myth-based. (See discussion next section.)

On 14 August 2015, Comcast’s Vice President of Internet Services, Jason Livingood, stated publicly that DC/UBP was not a network management decision, but a “business decision” that he had no part in making.[4]

Then, on 5 November 2015, an internal Comcast document instructing CS Reps how to answer questions about DC/UBP was leaked. That document instructs Comcast personnel “Do not say: The [DC/UBP] Program is about network management. (It is not.)[5]   (Emphasis added).

Time Warner Cable’s CEO Robert Marcus similarly has spoken about DC/UBP as a business decision (and is his opinion a bad one).[6]

DC/UBP is NOT about pricing fairness

If DC/UBP were truly about pricing fairness, subscribers would pay for exactly the amount of data they used, and no more. This model would be like water or power: there would be no monthly charge whatsoever (or perhaps only a miniscule one): if you used a kilobyte, you’d pay for a kilobyte. If you happened to be on vacation for a month and didn’t use any data, then your broadband bill would be zero. There would be no startup or termination charges. There would be no modem fees, just as there are no gas meter or electrical transformer fees. Tight government regulation over pricing would be beneficial as well.

None of these conditions is present in any of the wireline DC/UBP plans in the US currently, and none that I know of anywhere in the world, though I haven’t done an extensive search. Regardless, it’s clear that the purpose of DC/UBP is not to provide “pricing fairness.”

The GAO’s explanation of DC/UBP

In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office performed a study on DC/UBP. The GAO determined that while it is possible for providers to employ DC/UBP to the consumers’ advantage, “providers facing limited competition could use UBP to increase profits, potentially resulting in negative effects, including increased prices, reductions in content accessed, and increased threats to network security. Several researchers and stakeholders that the GAO interviewed said that UBP could reduce innovation for applications and content if consumers ration their data.”[7]

Simply put: absent sufficient competition, the purpose is two-fold. First, DC/UBP allows cable providers to use their monopoly (or in some much rarer cases duopoly) powers to extract additional revenues from customers. Upon the imposition of DC/UBP, the vast majority of customers have no competing provider of wireline broadband to whom they can turn.[8]

Secondly, DC/UBP gives cable internet providers the ability to use their “terminating monopoly” power to quash competition to their core video offerings. For instance, SlingTV CEO Roger Lynch in early December accused Comcast of setting its data caps just low enough to prevent customers from replacing cable TV with online video streaming.[9]

To see how this terminating monopoly power works, consider one of the increasing number of “cord cutting” households. By some estimates, 1 in 7 Americans are currently television cord-cutters.[10] These consumers do not subscribe to cable television. Instead, they purchase broadband only and subscribe to services such as Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Crackle, Fandor, etc. These services offer direct competition to cable providers’ video offerings. The imposition of “usage based billing” can artificially increase the price of cord cutting so that it is no longer a viable option for consumers.

A typical “cord-cutting” home uses an average of 328GB/mo,[11] exceeding most data-capped plans’ initial allowances. In fact, in October the Associated Press reported that 8% (and rising) of Comcast customers regularly exceed their data allowances and are charged overage fees.[12] As the emergence of UHD and 4k video offerings by streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon continues, these percentages will rise dramatically.[13] Since cable operators’ core video offerings are excluded from a user’s data count, it can quickly become cheaper to subscribe to a bloated cable package than pay data overage fees in addition to a la carte streaming service subscriptions. Then consumers must pay still more additional fees for DVRs to replace streaming’s de facto “on demand” nature. And yet more fees for additional cable boxes. This then is the true purpose of DC/UBP: increasing revenue, in part from overage fees and in part from pushing consumers into traditional cable packages with additional fees.

Potential Public Harms from DC/UBP

DC/UBP financially harms ratepayers, especially lower income customers

The effect of the financial penalties that streaming Netflix (and other such services) carries under DC/UBP plans will push consumers to New Charter’s own, more expensive, subscription offerings since watching video through New Charter’s traditional cable network would not count against consumers’ data allotments. These services are bundled such that subscribers must pay for hundreds of channels they have no interest in in order to get the 10-20 that they actually want to watch, thus artificially inflating their cable bill. (For instance, a recent Civic Science survey found that 56% of pay-tv subscribers would drop ESPN from their lineup in order to save $8/mo on their cable bills.[14] Cable companies, however, do not offer this as an option.) When DC/UBP is not present, cord-cutting is cheaper than cable, sometimes significantly so depending on the type of television in which the cord-cutter is interested.[15] Lower income Californians will be hit especially hard as DC/UBP forces them into those bloated, expensive cable “bundles.” For lower income viewers, this money-saving alternative will no longer be accessible since their prices are artificially inflated by DC/UBP.

This in turn stifles demand for broadband, running counter to Section 706(a)’s mandate. The CPUC has a statutory duty to protect ratepayers from a monopoly player stifling competition and investment, and that mandate is not limited to an arbitrary number of years.

The Commission is correct to want to expand broadband access to underserved areas, but it must also protect against that same access being used to prevent lower-income Californians from saving money on television bills by “cord-cutting.”

New Charter can use DC/UBP to circumvent Net Neutrality rules

Comcast is currently attempting an end-run around net neutrality rules and strongly pushing customers to their new streaming service “Stream TV” over competitors such as Hulu and Netflix. Comcast is exempting their own (more expensive) cord-cutting streaming service from usage-based metering, while competing services count against subscribers’ data allotments. While this is illegal under net neutrality, Comcast is arguing that since Stream TV exclusively uses its own IP network, and not the internet per se, net neutrality doesn’t apply.[16] As Wired.com put it, “Comcast may have found a major net neutrality loophole.”[17] (Note that this example directly contradicts the testimony of Charter’s Dr. Scott Morton.[18])

This is a loophole that New Charter could also use in order to attempt to circumvent net neutrality regulations. However, if the CPUC bars New Charter from instituting DC/UBP, this end-run loophole would be closed, and New Charter would not be able to engage in the anti-competitive customer-harming behavior that Comcast is now attempting.

It’s important to note here that the Commission cannot rely on the federal government to provide this protection to Californians. A number of U.S. Congress members have filed briefs requesting that courts overturn the FCC’s net neutrality rules.[19] Further, at the time of this writing, a number of house members are attempting to insert a net neutrality defunding clause into the omnibus spending bill.[20]

Under a Republican president and Congress, it’s clear that California should expect the federal government to abandon any and all open internet and net neutrality regulations. But as with climate change and carbon emissions legislation, California has the opportunity to lead the country by ensuring net neutrality and protecting competition, in part by adopting this proposed mitigation measure.

DC/UBP also gives ISPs the ability to leverage sponsored data programs. Such programs pose an existential threat to net neutrality, but on a more basic level, harm consumers by increasing fees for the services that participate. Sponsored data programs also present a barrier to entry for new, innovative, and less well-funded competing services.[21]

DC/UBP facilitates anti-competitive behavior

As the GAO report put it,  “…fixed providers—many of whom also provide television video content—could use UBP as a means to raise the price for watching online streaming video services—a competitor to their video services—as households continue to substitute television with streaming video.”[22] New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin points out that usage-based billing would be one of Charter’s strongest potential weapons against online video competitors.[23]

DC/UBP hinders innovation and investment

Again, from the GAO report:

“Because UBP can make it more expensive to watch data-heavy content such as streaming video, it may discourage people from accessing such content and, therefore, discourage them from eliminating their television service. This might adversely affect firms that provide online video streaming services and reduce competition and innovation in the market for providing streaming video content, thereby negatively affecting consumers.

In addition, two industry stakeholders we interviewed believe UBP could in general inhibit innovation that results from experimentation and unlimited access to the Internet. Greater innovation could result in the development of more content and applications that consumers demand and value. Some Internet users, such as heavy data users, may pay more for access under UBP. As a result, some of them may limit their Internet use—as mentioned earlier, some focus group participants said that they have reduced their mobile data usage as a result of UBP—particularly of data-heavy content and applications such as online learning and video. This could lead to reduced use of some beneficial Internet applications and innovation in such applications. For example, one public interest group said that the limits that UBP may impose on the market for innovative applications and content may limit the potential of new startups.”[24]

The report goes on to discuss additional ways DC/UBP might reduce innovation, and the above citation is worth reading in full.

These are the same concerns present in Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed Decision in the Comcast proceeding.[25] The alternate PD discusses these concerns as potential harms of Comcast creating a bottleneck between retail subscribers and edge providers, however, the same concerns are equally applicable to an ISP instituting DC/UBP.

DC/UBP has negative effects on network security

According to a 2012 study, DC/UBP may result in consumers—in an attempt to reduce data usage—foregoing automatic security updates to their computers, which could have negative implications for network security.[26]

DC/UBP removes educational opportunities for lower income citizens

In a June 2014 article, US News and World Report explained how online education can provide a significantly lower-cost and more flexible path to a degree. The article cites a Georgia Institute of Technology announcement that it would be offering an online master’s degree in computer science for $6,600 – about $35,000 less than its on-ground program.[27]

The online education model can put a higher degree in reach for countless people who otherwise could not afford that opportunity. However, this model relies heavily on video teleconferencing and video lectures. DC/UBP could inflate the price of online education such that it too could be unaffordable for lower-income Californians, completely pricing them out of higher degrees that could move them out of poverty into the middle class.

Charter could use DC/UBP as a loophole to completely avoid providing “Lifeline” low cost internet service, thus increasing the digital divide.

Envision a worst-case scenario where New Charter agrees to carry on TWC’s existing $14.99 low-cost plan, but caps the data at 5GB, then charges (as Comcast is currently trialing) $10 for each additional 50GB the subscriber uses. For a typical cord-cutting household that uses approximately 330GB of data a month, that would make the price of this “low-cost lifeline” plan $79.95/mo. A “low-cost” internet option of $80/month will do nothing to close the digital divide.[28]

Mitigating the Loss of TWC’s Commitment Against DC/UBP

Time Warner Cable has frequently stated publicly that it will “NEVER” impose DC/UBP. Over time, TWC has demonstrated an extremely different corporate culture and attitude towards DC/UBP than Charter has demonstrated. TWC’s CEO Robert Marcus has time and again made it clear that compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson TWC learned after customers pushed back and forced it to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and Austin, San Antonio, and Beaumont, Tex. in April 2009.[29]

TWC subsequently admitted their flirtation with DC/UBP was a mistake. That story, along with the pledge to never impose usage-based billing, is still on Time Warner Cable’s official blog at the time of this writing.[30]

The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again. In fact, Marcus often seems to be evangelizing AGAINST DC/UBP in general. On an October 2014 Wall Street analyst conference call, Marcus stated “We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think is something that customers value and are willing to pay for. 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.”[31]

It’s notable that while Comcast maintained the price point of the plans it converted from unlimited to mandatory UBP, TWC’s optional UBP plans came with a price discount. However, the discounts on those packages were minimal, and as of 11/21/2015 those packages are no longer advertised on the TWC website.

Marcus has continued to be publicly vocal about TWC’s decision to keep its non-usage-based pricing intact. He spoke to this point at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet, and Telecom Conference in March of 2014,[32] and again in a July 2015 investor conference call.[33]

On an October 2015 investor call Marcus was questioned by analyst Jonathan Chaplin on TWC’s lack of DC/UBP. Marcus responded that the way to increase revenue was to deliver more utility. DC/UBP is the opposite of that, he said.[34]

If the CPUC approves this transaction without mitigation, it will be allowing for the destruction of the largest US wireline broadband entity dedicated to NEVER instituting compulsory DC/UBP in favor of a mere three year commitment. It would forever remove a policy competitor that subscribers to other wireline broadband providers could point to and say, “Yes, a cable company can be profitable without DC/UBP.” More directly, the loss of TWC’s corporate culture and belief that DC/UBP is a poor business decision would be an immense harm to current and future TWC customers.

Charter Is Particularly Suspect Concerning DC/UBP

This merger’s financing model gives New Charter every incentive to impose DC/UBP

Post-merger, New Charter will be in a precarious financial position.[35] One of the strongest incentives for rate increases is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. The New York Department of Public Service staff, in examining this transaction for that state, concluded that New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[36]

Charter’s Mr. Fisher disagrees with this analysis in his opening testimony, stating that “New Charter will be financially healthy to the benefit of its shareholders and consumers throughout the State of California.”[37] [emphasis added]. If this is true, then this proposed mitigation will help ensure that consumers do in fact see some of those benefits, and that they are not all given only to shareholders, an occurrence that happens far too often in transactions such as the one currently under consideration. This is especially important since when Mr. Fisher later lists the benefits that will come from the merger, none of the benefits he lists are in the area of consumer pricing.[38] As we detail later in these comments, prices will actually go UP after the merger.

Charter has provided inaccurate information about their history with DC/UBP

Charter’s expert Dr. Fiona Scott Morton, a professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, stated in FCC testimony:

“For 3 years, New Charter will not charge consumers additional fees to use specific third-party Internet applications, or engage in zero-rating (discriminatory exemptions from a data cap).

These binding commitments provide further assurance beyond the economic reasoning I describe below — assurance that New Charter will not engage in these types of conduct: charging higher interconnection fees, using discriminatory data plans, or reducing the quality of OVD signals. (Note that Charter already does not have data caps for its residential broadband customers. Notwithstanding the dramatic but welcome rise in data usage by broadband customers, Charter has not had an active data cap since January 2012.)”[39]

But this statement is simply incorrect. As of November 2013 Charter had data caps ranging from 100-500GB.[40] Customers in some areas were called by Charter for exceeding their usage allowance,[41] and usage rationing remained in Charter’s Acceptable Use Policy until late 2014,[42] not January 2012 as Dr. Scott Morton claims. In fact, as of 21 November 2015, Charter’s AUP still allows it to define “excessive use of bandwidth” however it sees fit, and take any action that Charter in its sole opinion it deems reasonable.[43] Dr. Scott Morton does not believe Charter has any interest in imposing data caps on customers, despite the fact Charter quietly shelved existing caps on Oct. 1, 2014, just several months before unveiling its bid for both Time Warner and Bright House, neither of which have capped customer usage.[44]

The FCC is rightly concerned about this discrepancy, and has requested that Charter detail when it adopted bandwidth usage caps, when it dropped them, and why.[45] The CPUC would be right to be concerned as well.

Charter has a history of misleading customers and regulators.

For example, Charter advertises Spectrum TV Stream service at $12.99/mo, when most users will actually pay at least $20/mo, some more.[46] While some “padding” via fees is unfortunately normal, this is upwards of a 50% differential. Note that this is in direct contradiction to Mr. Fisher’s opening statement to the CPUC, in which he claims that Charter “does not separately charge users incremental fees that other providers in the industry commonly add on to the advertised price… As a result, consumers have a clearer understanding of… the price that they will see on their bill.”[47]

Another example: The FCC is concerned about 26% owner John Malone’s involvement with this merger, as he has engaged in anticompetitive behaviour in the past.[48] Malone, whom Senator Al Gore once referred to as “The Darth Vader of telecom,”[49] is currently best known as the owner of SiriusXM satellite radio. The two satellite companies merged in 2008 with a mitigation condition forbidding any rate hikes for three years.[50] Upon the expiration of that condition, SiriusXM promised investors an immediate price hike.[51] Based on past history, there’s no reason to believe that any mitigation conditions the CPUC imposes on this transaction won’t be discarded immediately upon expiration.

And a third example: on 20 January 2016 Charter released the results of a survey that it sponsored itself. Charter claims that the results show public support for the merger. However, the statements Charter used in the poll pertaining to data caps were extremely misleading. Respondents were told by the pollster that  “Charter has said that it will not impose data limits on customers after the merger.”[52] However, there was no mention of the incredibly brief 3 year time limit on this commitment, nor the fact that Time Warner has promised for years to never impose data limits on customers. It is definitely misleading, possibly deceitful, for Charter to use responses to this deceptive statement as “proof” of public support for this transaction.

A fourth example: Dr. Scott Morton’s November 2 statement is less than forthcoming in many regards. On Page 10 (Section 27) Dr. Scott Morton completely omits a fourth characteristic of a valuable MVPD partner: the commitment to refrain from implementing DC/UBP. Implementation of DC/UBP would artificially increase the cost of the OVD’s product to the consumer, thus decreasing demand for that service. This increased cost over which the OVD has no control is in effect a barrier to market entry, and therefore a disincentive to innovation and reduction of competition.

It’s also telling that Dr. Scott Morton’s conclusion in Part 49 is that Charter’s “technology” promotes entry of OVDs. Conspicuously absent is the statement that Charter’s “policies” promote entry of OVDs. Even more conspicuous is that as noted in Part 128, Charter promises a mere three years of refraining from disadvantaging OVDs. What Charter is promising is both flimsy and transparent: “You have nothing to worry about, but only hold us to it for three years.”

Still further, in Part 130, Dr. Scott Morton notes Netflix’s statement that “Charter’s new peering policy is a welcome and significant departure from the efforts of some ISPs to collect excess tolls to the Internet.” However, the CPUC must guard against New Charter shifting these “excess tolls” directly onto subscribers as the GAO report referenced earlier warned. DC/UBP would be a prime means for New Charter to do just that.

A fifth example: the opening testimony of Charter’s Mr. Falk is likewise misleading on a number of points. Mr. Falk claims that the merger will come with “no countervailing harms,”[53] however, according to his own statement, there are clearly price increases coming for many TWC customers.[54] Mr. Falk testifies about Charter’s “customer friendly billing practices,” but in reality those practices are not friendly to consumers at all.[55] Mr. Falk then goes on to make a claim that is flatly contradicted by his own expert’s testimony to the FCC,[56] makes misleading statements about the significance of wireline competition,[57] and a statement that is materially false regarding pricing of Charter’s base internet speed tier.[58]

Charter has flatly failed to comply with multiple Commission rulings.

Charter has refused to comply with certain requirements of DIVCA even though the company submitted an affidavit to the Commission swearing to do so.[59] More recently, Charter ignored the January 20 ALJ ruling of A.15-07-009, which required that “Charter and TWCIS shall provide notice to their respective customers not less than 5, nor more than 30 days, prior to” the

Los Angeles Public Participation Hearing scheduled for January 26.[60]  As of the morning of January 25, I had received no such notice either by email or postal mail, even though I hold not one but two California-based TWC accounts. Note that I did check my SPAM folder, and no notices had been diverted there.

The point being… both consumers and the CPUC should be extremely suspect of anything Charter says regarding the benefits of this merger, including their reasoning that DC/UBP is something that they have no interest in instituting. Mitigations should be designed to protect consumers against a potentially hostile and untrustworthy monopolistic player, particularly around an issue as nuanced and complex as usage based pricing.

Charter’s Opening Testimony Supports this Proposed Condition

New Charter should not object to this proposed mitigation condition, since it is substantially supported by Dr. Scott Morton’s November 2 statement, as well as the opening testimony from Mr. Fisher, the Senior VP of Corporate Finance at Charter, and Mr. Falk, Charter’s Senior VP for State Government Affairs.

In her November 2 testimony, Part 132, Dr. Scott Morton discusses New Charter’s open internet commitments. While not addressing DC/UBP directly, in her discussion of other conditions addressing issues such as paid prioritization, zero rating, throttling, etc, Dr. Scott Morton states that the fact these conditions have a finite life should not be cause for concern. She explains that in three years’ time market conditions would be such that “a strategy of foreclosure or otherwise trying to impede OVDs would be even more unprofitable for New Charter.”

Dr. Scott Morton then suggests that should New Charter decide to engage in anticompetitive behaviour in three years’ time, consumers could simply switch to an alternate broadband provider. However, as Dr. Scott Morton goes on to point out, there is currently a lack of competing broadband providers in most of New Charter’s proposed footprint. Other experts have also testified that the US market for fixed broadband is not effectively competitive, and this situation will persist for the foreseeable future.[61] This is true for New Charter’s proposed footprint in California as well.[62]

“Currently AT&T/Verizon have usage allotments that make it economically unattractive to use wireless as an in-home broadband service,” Dr. Scott Morton explains. “T-Mobile and Sprint do offer “unlimited” plans, however, they… de-prioritize traffic above usage thresholds…”[63] So even by her own testimony, wireless providers do not count as potential broadband competition for New Charter.

Dr. Scott Morton goes on to examine what little wireline broadband competition does exist, but as the CPUC is well aware, the companies she cites are not available in most of New Charter’s proposed footprint.

In summary, Dr. Scott Morton testifies that in three years time there will be adequate broadband competition present to prevent New Charter from behaving in an anti-competitive manner. If she is correct, then this proposed mitigation condition will sunset based on the existence of that very competition. If she is incorrect about the amount of time it takes for that competitive marketplace to form, then this mitigation will simply continue to protect consumers until the competition Dr. Scott Morton discussed does actually come into existence.

The mitigation condition being proposed here simply ensures that New Charter only has the ability to behave in an anticompetitive way when the “competing broadband provider[s]” Dr. Scott references are actually in existence. It’s designed in a way to be fair to both consumers, and New Charter.

Why Competition Must Be the Only Trigger for Sunsetting this Condition

The 2014 GAO report examined four mobile providers that impose DC/UBP. ALL OF THEM have increased the variety of plans offered, but even more significantly, ALL OF THEM have increased the amount of their monthly data allowances. That’s not true of the fixed internet providers studied. Some of those providers have introduced higher priced, higher speed plans that also come with increased allowances, but NONE of them have increased the data allowances without an accompanying price increase.[64]

The obvious difference between the wireless and wireline providers’ circumstances is the presence of competition in the mobile sphere, and the lack of competition in the wireline sphere. The GAO report affirms this analysis.[65] The report goes on to explain that without adequate competition (and much evidence proves that duopoly markets do not constitute effective competition[66]), wireline customers have fewer plan choices. Only two of the wireline providers examined even offered discounted UBP plans. The two that did offer discounted plans offered discounts far inferiour to the discounts offered by the more competitive wireless market.[67]

For further evidence, consider the example of Comcast’s usage-based pricing “trial.” Comcast’s DC/UBP policies have resulted in a deluge of FCC complaints, potentially upwards of 11,000.[68] Comcast customers report gross inaccuracies in the company’s data meter, resulting in erroneous overage charges.[69] Customers are also reporting that once they pay Comcast’s $35 add-on for truly unlimited service, speeds for services that compete with Comcast (such as Netflix and Hulu) actually DROP.[70] The company then uses these speed issues to attempt to force customers into renting a modem from Comcast. When pressed hard enough by customers with technical knowledge of modems and routers, however, Comcast reps finally do resolve the speed issues remotely.[71]

The logical action for these customers would be to leave Comcast for a different provider; however, for the vast majority of them there is no other provider available. While admittedly Comcast is a different company from Charter, this example underscores the absolute necessity to sunset mitigation conditions only when actual wireline competition exists in the market…  NOT after an arbitrary number of years. As Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed decision stated:

“We find that conditions that only temporarily or incompletely mitigate identified harms to the public interest are not sufficient to offset those harms. Such conditions also do not ‘preserve the jurisdiction of the commission,’ as required by § 854(c)(7).[72]

Summary on DC/UBP

In the Comcast proceeding, the Proposed Decision offered a condition (specifically #17) which would have restricted Comcast from implementing either data caps or mandatory usage based pricing (DC/UBP) for a period of five years. However, as Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed Decision noted, that condition would have been insufficient to effectively mitigate the underlying potential harm due to the condition’s temporary nature.

Many mitigation conditions in the Comcast PD had no sunset clauses at all, such as Conditions 11 and 12 expanding the Internet Essentials program. Just as a sunset for the expansion of IE would have been unreasonable, so the sunset clause for the prohibition on DC/UBP was inadequate. Additionally, it would have run afoul of the Commission’s mandate under § 854(c)(7).

The behaviour of companies in this industry in general, and Charter’s past behaviour specifically, makes it clear that the CPUC should not take a risk on Charter’s less-than-compelling offer of a mere three year delay of the institution of data caps and usage-based pricing.

Beyond this particular issue, we believe that there is overwhelming evidence that this merger clearly would not be in the best interest of Californians, and that the CPUC should deny the transfer of licenses. However, should the CPUC for some reason allow the transfer to take place, we’d strongly request that the CPUC tailor the mitigation condition concerning data caps and usage-based pricing as this paper has suggested. Only a mitigation condition designed in this way would truly protect Californians, yet also be fair to New Charter by allowing the condition to sunset when the competition that Charter’s experts have testified is so important actually comes into existence.

Part 2 — Additional Reasons This Transaction is Not in the Public Interest

Time Warner Cable’s Superior Recent Upgrade Performance

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers in this state want and need. We argue that 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. 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[73]:

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.

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 was serviced with Maxx upgrades by the end of 2015, and Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[74]

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[75]. “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 30 January 2014[76], 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. Note that in Los Angeles these speed increases came with no corresponding price increase. In evaluating this transaction in New York, the NYDPS staff noted, “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.” The CPUC should examine this issue as well.

Charter, on the other hand, is saddled with debt servicing costs and more expensive credit, both of which are deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance, not to mention also placing upward pressure on the prices New Charter will charge consumers. 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 upgrade proposal is, in fact, both technically and 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 it claims.

Charter Communications’ Network Upgrade Proposal Is Not a Good Deal for California

Time 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 for a markedly higher price. The extra expense over the TWC 50Mbps plan does not justify a mere 10Mbps speed increase. (Currently in Los Angeles, TWC offers 200Mbps for $65/mo… roughly the same price as Charter’s 60/5 plan. TWC’s plan is over three times as fast as Charter’s for nearly the same amount). But perhaps more concerning, this 10Mbps increase comes at a high cost to customers looking for more budget-priced service than 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 Charter charges for their 60Mbps tier, or those who have no interest in streaming media.

Time Warner Cable offers its $14.99 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 Californians 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 larger, superior product line for less money at ALL speed levels in California. Charter would bring Californians fewer options at more expensive prices.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income Californians is the 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[77] 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 aren’t eligible until you pay it 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 designed to dampen and discourage enrollment.

The interest in meeting the needs of low-income customers would be laudable if not for the insistence that 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 Californians are simply not adequate.

Charter Communications’ Cable Pricing Is More Expensive and Less Flexible than Time Warner Cable’s Pricing

Charter’s commitment to improve cable television does not offer any significant benefit to 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.

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,”[78] 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.[79]

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).[80]

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. However, Time Warner allows customers to effectively purchase their set top boxes in the form of the Roku device, giving consumers the ability to completely eliminate the set top box rental fee is they so wish.[81]

Other Points the Commission Should Consider in Reviewing This Transaction

  • California must receive ‘most favored state’ status, meaning that whatever conditions other state commissions get from Charter must automatically apply to all Californians as well.
  • The Commission must insist that rural California is treated equally to the Los Angeles market. If this transaction is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across all of its service areas in California, to be completed within 30 months. Nothing less than that should be acceptable to the Commission. We agree with the New York DPS staff’s recommendation that Charter also be compelled to upgrade facilities to support gigabit broadband, and that should apply to California as well.This upgrade 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[82], MidContinent[83], Cox[84], and Mediacom[85] 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 the likes of Carlsbad, Hesperia, Jurupa Valley, and beyond.
  • 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.

Again, we feel Commissioner Florio’s Alternate PD in the Comcast matter applies equally well here and that the application should be denied. If the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, however, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful and ongoing. Any failure of New Charter 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.
Conclusion

Cable operators know that 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 to no chance that 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 utmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision that this Commission makes for the next 20 years or more.

As the Commission must realize, this transaction does not involve just entertainment. Several months ago the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility:”[86]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to the 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 that California should not take a risk on Charter’s less-than-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 Californians, offers more broadband options and faster speeds, 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 packages.

[1] Comcast XFinity website: http://goo.gl/OlWFu3

[2] For instance: “Internet traffic is growing fast — but capacity is keeping pace” Telegeography. 3 September 2008. https://goo.gl/OFBPHX; and Bode, Karl. “The ‘Bandwidth Hog’ is a Myth” DLSreports. 30 November 2011. https://goo.gl/lv6jE5

[3] DSLreports.com (https://goo.gl/0sZasc)

[4] Brodkin, Jon. “Comcast VP: 300GB data cap is ‘business policy’ not ‘technical necessity’ Ars Technica.  14 August 2015. http://goo.gl/1lAFwJ

[5] Morran, Chris. “Leaked Comcast Doc Admits: Data Caps Have Nothing To Do With Congestion” Consumerist. 6 November 2015. http://goo.gl/Uq9o5c

[6] TWC 2014 Q3 Earnings Call. http://goo.gl/Oz9hnL

[7] U.S. Government Accountability Office. “FCC Should Track the Application of Fixed Internet Usage-Based Pricing and Help Improve Consumer Education. November 2014. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-108

[8] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Pages 75-77.

[9] Brodkin, Jon.  “Sling CEO: Comcast data caps so low they hurt competing video providers” Ars Technica. 7 December 2015. http://goo.gl/w98cqJ

[10] Pew Research Center “Home Broadband 2015” report. Page 19, as cited in NHMC reply testimony.

[11] Brodkin, Jon. “Watch out for data caps: Video hungry cord-cutters use 328GB a month” Ars Technica. 14 May 2014.  http://goo.gl/0O8vtR

[12] Arbel, Tali. “How Comcast wants to meter the internet” Associated Press. 27 October 2015. http://goo.gl/tnc66p

[13] Horn, Leslie. “You can burn through your entire broadband data cap in one long weekend” Gizmodo. 18 February 2014. http://goo.gl/Z0yQfY; and also Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn, 15 January 2016, page 114.

[14] Frankel, Daniel. “Survey: 56% of pay-tv customers would ditch ESPN in order to save $8 every month.” FierceCable. 13 Jan 2016. http://goo.gl/CQRCpp

[15] Heisler, Yoni. “How much money does cutting the cord really save?” BGR.  12 November 2015. https://goo.gl/tmiQL2; also Jones, Stacy. “Cost of cable TV vs internet streaming” Bankrate. 24 November 2014. http://goo.gl/tGJqK5

[16] Brodkin, Jon. “Comcast launches streaming TV service that doesn’t count against data caps” Ars Technica. 19 November 2015. http://goo.gl/ITJusN

[17] Finley, Klint. “Comcast may have found a major net neutrality loophole” Wired. 20 November 2015. http://goo.gl/zyFJku

[18] 2 November 2015 Statement of Dr. Scott Morton, Parts 132-133, pages 48-49.

[19] Brodkin, Jon. “House Republicans urge court to throw out net neutrality rules” Ars Technica.

11 November 2015. http://goo.gl/TBV56e

[20] Fung, Brian. “Republicans are trying to defund net neutrality. Will it work?” Washington Post. 24 July 2015.  https://goo.gl/Shk99e

[21] Ravenscraft, Eric. “Sponsored Data Is The Newest, Biggest Threat to Net Neutrality” Lifehacker. 20 January 2016. http://goo.gl/SXtl9C

[22] GAO “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108) page 26. http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/667164.pdf

[23] Dampier, Phillip. “Wall Street: Usage Caps Are an Important Weapon in Fight Over Cord-Cutting.” Stop the Cap!  18 January 2016. http://goo.gl/FKhsFO

[24] GAO “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108) page 26.

[25] CPUC A.14-04-013, A14-06-012 Alternate Proposed Decision, pages 71-72.

[26] Marshini Chetty, Richard Banks, A.J. Bernheim Brush, Jonathan Donner, and Rebecca E. Grinter. “‘You’re Capped!’ Understanding the Effects of Bandwidth Caps on Broadband Use in the Home.” ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. May 2012.

[27] Haynie, Devon. “Why Online Education May Drive Down the Cost of Your Degree” US News and World Report.  3 June 2014.  http://goo.gl/HSH1Pp

[28] Kehl, Danielle and Lucey, Patrick. “Artificial Scarcity: How Data Caps Harm Consumers and Innovation”  Open Technology Institute. 30 June 2015. https://goo.gl/zt5Jj9

[29] Yao, Deborah. “Time Warner Cable shelves some Internet cap plans” ABC News. 18 April 2009.  http://goo.gl/YynOiM

[30] Simmermon, Jeff. “Launching An Optional Usage-Based Broadband Pricing Plan In Southern Texas” TWC “Untangled” Blog. 27 February 2012.  http://goo.gl/PoS5nR

[31] Dampier, Phillip. “Time Warner Cable Recommits: No Mandatory Usage Caps As Long As Company Remains Independent” Stop the Cap! 30 October 2014.  http://goo.gl/6vxXNx

[32] Dampier, Phillip. “Time Warner Cable Admits Usage-Based Pricing is a Big Failure; Only Thousands Enrolled” Stop the Cap! 13 March 2014. http://goo.gl/lCqp4k

[33] Q2 2015 Time Warner Cable Results-Earnings Call. 30 June 2015. http://goo.gl/JINiwn

[34] Q3 2015 Time Warner Cable Earnings Call. 29 October 2015. https://goo.gl/piDDDc

[35] Media Alliance Reply Testimony to Joint Applicants Opening Testimony, pages 2-3. 15 January 2015.

[36] “Redacted Comments of the New York State Department of Public Service Staff” September 16, 2015. Page 39. http://goo.gl/C1Xpph

[37] Opening Testimony of Charles Fisher, page 6.

[38] Id at 7-8.

[39] “Statement of Dr. Fiona Scott Morton re the Merger of Charter, TWC, and BHN” 2 November 2015. Page 48. http://goo.gl/eEtY5Z

[40] Higginbotham, Stacey. “Want to know if your ISP is capping data? Check our updated chart.” GigaOm. 15 November 2013. https://goo.gl/owGq96

[41] DSL Reports: https://goo.gl/1RXjgm

[42] DSL Reports: https://goo.gl/aoFvuT

[43] “Charter Residential Internet Acceptable Use Policy.” https://goo.gl/8ICMe1

[44] Testimony of Laura Blum Smith, 15 January 2016. Page 14.

[45] Eggerton, John. “FCC Seeks Data Dump from Charter, TWC, Brighthouse” Multichannel News. 23 September 2015.  http://goo.gl/nJEazB

[46] Dampier, Phillip. “Charter and Time Warner Cable Try Internet-Only TV Service to Combat Cord-Cutting, Cord-Nevers” Stop the Cap! 26 October 2015.  http://goo.gl/doimuR

[47] Opening Testimony of Charles Fisher, page 4.

[48] Shields, Todd. “Cable Magnate Malone’s Stakes Scrutinized in Charter-TWC Deal” Bloomberg News. 9 November 2015. http://goo.gl/s6VTMw

[49] Kang, Cecilia and Fung, Brian. “The Darth Vader of Telecom is Back” Washington Post. 26 May 2016.  https://goo.gl/qWS480

[50] Lasar, Matthew. “Sirius/XM merger approved with new conditions” Ars Technica. 28 July 2008. http://goo.gl/LO4aaQ

[51] Lieberman, David. “Sirius XM CEO Mel Karmazin Vows Big Vows Big Consumer Price Hike (If the FCC Allows It)” Deadline Hollywood. 3 May 2011.  https://goo.gl/tTYZE3

[52] Cox, Kate. “Poll Sponsored By Charter Says Charter Is Great, More Charter is Greater” Consumerist. 20 January 2016. http://goo.gl/Xp0wsJ

[53] Opening Testimony of Adam Falk, page 2.

[54] Charter currently charges just under $65/mo for its 60Mbps tier of standalone internet with wireless gateway (outside of promotions). In Los Angeles, though, Time Warner Cable offers for that exact same amount 200Mbps also with a wireless gateway. Time Warner provides over three times the speed Charter does for the same price. That certainly is a countervailing harm to consumers.

[55] Unlike Time Warner, Charter bakes its modem fee into the internet plan. So every single customer is paying that modem fee… even if they own their own modem (like many Time Warner customers do). Not only is that not a “customer friendly billing practice,” but it’s another countervailing harm as well. Later on page 18 of his opening statement, Mr. Falk says “New Charter will bring base speed tiers from 15 Mbps to Charter’s current standard of 60 Mbps at uniform pricing within a year of closing.” Those unfortunate consumers get to take a double hit: not only will Charter be increasing the price of the comparable tier, but they will be taking away even the option to have a cheaper tier should the customer want it. It’s a massive price hike with fewer options available. That certainly doesn’t sound like the “customer friendly billing practices” Mr. Falk is touting, nor does it make his claim that consumers will face no harms from this merger ring particularly true.

[56] On page 3 of his opening statement, Mr. Falk claims that New Charter will face “other forms of competition (e.g., wireless providers).” But as described above, Dr. Scott Morton admits that wireless providers are actually NOT competition for New Charter’s internet offerings.

[57] Also on page 3, Mr. Falk states that “New Charter will face significant competition from wireline competitors (e.g., AT&T and Frontier).” But in reality, the areas where AT&T and/or Frontier (or even Verizon) actually overlap New Charter territory is extremely limited. And at any rate, this proposed mitigation condition would sunset where that overlap is present.

[58] Mr. Falk’s states: “Charter offers its base 60 Mbps service at lower prices than other providers for comparable service, without modem fees…” This simply isn’t true. Currently, Time Warner offers a 50 Mbps off contract for $45/mo. That’s comparable and significantly less expensive than Charter. TWC also offers 100Mbps at $55/mo… still less than Charter’s price for the slower 60Mbps. Mr. Falk’s statement is simply false.

[59] Testimony of Marc Puckett on behalf of Intervenor Town of Apple Valley, page 2. 15 January 2015.

[60] CPUC ALJ Ruling A.15-07-009 page 2.

[61] Testimony of Martyn Roetter on behalf of the County of Monterey. 15 January 2015. Page 1.

[62] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Page 116.

[63] Statement of Dr. Scott Morton. 2 November 2015. Page 51, footnote 187.

[64] USGAO. “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108). November 2014. Page 11. http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/667164.pdf

[65] Id. at 23.

[66] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Page 132.

[67] Id pages 24-25.

[68] Brodkin, Jon. “Complaint Factory: Angry Internet subscribers tee off against Comcast, Verizon, AT&T.” Ars Technica. 29 December 2015.  http://goo.gl/484NYO

[69] Dampier, Phillip. “Comcast Customers Buy $35 Usage Cap Insurance, Report ‘Unlimited’ is Slower Than Ever.” Stop the Cap! 28 December 2015.  http://goo.gl/SMfsOg

[70] Id.

[71] Id.

[72] CPUC A.14-04-013, A14-06-012 Alternate Proposed Decision, page 77.

[73] TWC Untangled Blog. 30 April 2015. http://goo.gl/6gp3er

[74] TWC Untangled Blog. 14 July 2015. http://goo.gl/eWZEGl

[75] TWC Q4 2014 Earnings Call Transcript on Seeking Alpha. http://goo.gl/c8QZtR

[76] TWC Untangled Blog. 14 July 2015. http://goo.gl/jafclZ

[77] Dampier, Phillip. “Bright House’s Mysterious Internet Discount Program Charter Wants to Adopt Nationwide” 25 June 2015. http://goo.gl/DVlwpF

[78] Baker, Liana. “Analysis: Charter’s bid for Time Warner Cable hinges on Rutledge’s skill. Reuters. http://goo.gl/QndjSd

[79] Charter Channel Lineup. https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup

[80] Senator Ed Markey Press Release. 30 July 2015. http://goo.gl/PNy2b0

[81] Mlot, Stephanie. “Replace your Time Warner Cable Box with a Roku” PC Magazine. 10 November 2015. http://goo.gl/GkSbu7

[82] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Suddenlink Boots Up 1-Gig Broadband” Multichannel News. 9 July 2015. http://goo.gl/U2SK4X

[83] Midco Press Release. 17 November 2014. https://goo.gl/pKmChH

[84] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Cox Plots DOCSIS 3.1 Plans” Multichannel News. 22 September 2015. http://goo.gl/LDIFsR

[85] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Mediacom Sets Residential 1-Gig Rollout” Multichannel News. 9 September 2015. http://goo.gl/MGFQ02

[86] Trujillo, Mario. “Obama administration declares broadband ‘core utility’ in report” The Hill. 21 September 2015. http://goo.gl/5vazOL

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