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United States of AT&T: DirecTV Acquired by AT&T in $48.5 Billion Deal

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ ATT Buys DirecTV 5-19-14.flv

For $48.5 billion, AT&T will vault itself into second place among the nation’s largest pay television providers with the acquisition of DirecTV. The Wall Street Journal reports the executives at AT&T have been looking to for a giant deal for several years. Most executives earn special bonuses and other incentives worth millions for successfully completing these kinds of transactions. (3:03)

AT&T plans to spend $48.5 billion to acquire the nation’s biggest satellite television provider, allowing AT&T to become the second largest pay television company, behind a merged Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

att directvThe deal, finalized on Sunday, pays $95 per DirecTV share in a combination of stock and cash, about a 10% premium over DirecTV’s closing price on Friday. Including debt, the acquisition is AT&T’s third-largest deal on record, behind the purchase of BellSouth for $83 billion in 2006 and the deal for Ameritech Corp., which closed in 1999, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

“This is a unique opportunity that will redefine the video entertainment industry and create a company able to offer new bundles and deliver content to consumers across multiple screens – mobile devices, TVs, laptops, cars and even airplanes. At the same time, it creates immediate and long-term value for our shareholders,” said Randall Stephenson, AT&T chairman and CEO. “DirecTV is the best option for us because they have the premier brand in pay TV, the best content relationships, and a fast-growing Latin American business. DirecTV is a great fit with AT&T and together we’ll be able to enhance innovation and provide customers new competitive choices for what they want in mobile, video and broadband services. We look forward to welcoming DirecTV’s talented people to the AT&T family.”

The announced acquisition has left some on Wall Street scratching their heads.

“Like any merger born of necessity rather than opportunity, the combination of AT&T and DirecTV calls to mind images of lifeboats and rescues at sea,” telecommunications analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research wrote this week. AT&T, Moffett wrote, is in “dire need of a cash producer to sustain their dividend.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg ATT DirecTV Deal a Head Scratcher 5-19-14.flv

Craig Moffett, founder of MoffettNathanson LLC, talks about AT&T Inc.’s plan to buy DirecTV for $48.5 billion. Moffett speaks with Tom Keene, Scarlet Fu, William Cohan, and Adam Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance.” StockTwits founder Howard Lindzon also speaks. (5:12)

pay market shareThe deal would combine AT&T’s wireless, U-verse, and broadband networks with DirecTV’s television service, creating bundling opportunities for some satellite customers. As broadband becomes the most important component of a package including phone, television, and Internet access, not being able to offer broadband has left satellite TV companies at a competitive disadvantage. AT&T’s U-verse platform – a fiber to the neighborhood network – has given AT&T customers an incremental broadband speed upgrade, but not one that can necessarily compete against fiber to the home or cable broadband.

Some analysts are speculating AT&T will eventually shut down its U-verse television service and dedicate its bandwidth towards a more robust broadband offering. Existing television customers would be offered DirecTV instead.

But deal critics contend AT&T is spending a lot of money to buy its competitors instead of investing enough in network upgrades.

“The amount of cash alone AT&T is spending on this deal — $14.55 billion — is as much as it cost Verizon for its entire FiOS deployment, which reaches more than 17 million homes,” Free Press’ Derek Turner tells Stop the Cap! “Add in the $33 billion in AT&T stock and $18.6 billion in debt, and you can see just how wasteful this merger is.”

In effect, AT&T is spending nearly $50 billion to buy DirecTV’s customer relationships, its satellite platform, and its agreements with programmers, all while removing one competitor from the market. Cable has 54 percent of the pay TV market, satellite has 34 percent, and AT&T and Verizon share 11 percent. AT&T’s U-verse has 5.7 million TV customers. DirecTV has 20.3 million. Combining the two gives AT&T 26 million television customers, second only to Comcast/Time Warner Cable.

Rural Americans will effectively see their choice in competitors drop by one-third, giving them the option of the phone company or Dish Network.

AT&T intends to persuade regulators to approve the deal despite its antitrust implications by offering several commitments the company says are in the public interest and protect consumers:

  • 15 Million Customer Locations Get More High Speed Broadband Competition. AT&T will use the merger synergies to expand its plans to build and enhance high-speed broadband service to 15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas where AT&T does not provide high-speed broadband service today, utilizing a combination of technologies including fiber to the premises and fixed wireless local loop capabilities. This new commitment, to be completed within four years after close, is on top of the fiber and Project VIP broadband expansion plans AT&T has already announced. Customers will be able to buy broadband service stand-alone or as part of a bundle with other AT&T services.
  • Stand-Alone Broadband. For customers who only want a broadband service and may choose to consume video through an over-the-top (OTT) service like Netflix or Hulu, the combined company will offer stand-alone wireline broadband service at speeds of at least 6Mbps (where feasible) in areas where AT&T offers wireline IP broadband service today at guaranteed prices for three years after closing.
  • Nationwide Package Pricing on DIRECTV. DIRECTV’s TV service will continue to be available on a stand-alone basis at nationwide package prices that are the same for all customers, no matter where they live, for at least three years after closing.
  • Net Neutrality Commitment. Continued commitment for three years after closing to the FCC’s Open Internet protections established in 2010, irrespective of whether the FCC re-establishes such protections for other industry participants following the DC Circuit Court of Appeals vacating those rules.
  • Spectrum Auction. The transaction does not alter AT&T’s plans to meaningfully participate in the FCC’s planned spectrum auctions later this year and in 2015. AT&T intends to bid at least $9 billion in connection with the 2015 incentive auction provided there is sufficient spectrum available in the auction to provide AT&T a viable path to at least a 2×10 MHz nationwide spectrum footprint.

a dtv 2

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN ATT DirecTV Merger 5-19-14.flv

CNN says AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV is about getting video programming to customers using all types of technology, but public interest groups suspect it’s about reducing competition. (1:17)

A closer look at AT&T’s commitments exposes several loopholes, however.

AT&T U-verse and DirecTV compete head-on in these areas.

AT&T U-verse and DirecTV compete head-on in these areas.

  • AT&T’s “commitment” to expand broadband to 15 million new locations is in addition to their Project VIP U-verse expansion now underway. However, AT&T does not say how many rural customers will see wired U-verse service finally become available vs. how many will lose their landlines permanently and have to rely on AT&T’s wireless landline replacement and expensive, usage-capped wireless broadband;
  • AT&T’s speed commitment is largely unenforceable and falls apart with language like, “where feasible.” Anywhere they don’t deliver 6Mbps DSL speed can easily be explained away as “unfeasible.” AT&T also only commits to providing DSL where it already offers DSL, so no expansion there;
  • The FCC’s Net Neutrality protections never covered wireless and three years is a very short time to commit to the “light touch” approach the FCC had with Net Neutrality back in 2010;
  • AT&T’s wireless auction commitment comes with loopholes like “meaningfully,” “provided there,” and “a viable path to at least.”

“You can’t justify AT&T buying DirecTV by pointing at Comcast’s grab for Time Warner, because neither one is a good deal for consumers,” said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, the advocacy arm of Consumer Reports. “On the heels of Comcast’s bid for Time Warner Cable, AT&T is going to try to pull off a mega-merger of its own. These could be the start of a wave of mergers that should put federal regulators on high alert.  AT&T’s takeover of DirecTV is just the latest attempt at consolidation in a marketplace where consumers are already saddled with lousy service and price hikes. The rush is on for some of the biggest industry players to get even bigger, with consumers left on the losing end.”

“The captains of our communications industry have clearly run out of ideas,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. “Instead of innovating and investing in their networks, companies like AT&T and Comcast are simply buying up the competition. These takeovers are expensive, and consumers end up footing the bill for merger mania. AT&T is willing to pay $48.5 billion and take on an additional $19 billion in debt to buy DirecTV. That’s a fortune to spend on a satellite-only company at a time when the pay-TV industry is stagnating and broadband is growing. For the amount of money and debt AT&T and Comcast are collectively shelling out for their respective mega-deals, they could deploy super-fast gigabit-fiber broadband service to every single home in America.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Al Franken Skeptical About DirecTV Deal 5-19-14.flv

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) appeared on CNN’s New Day this morning to express his skepticism about the consumer benefits of a merger between AT&T and DirecTV. “We need more competition, not less.” (2:40)

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

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

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

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

Let’s review history:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cable prices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Phillip "Section 706 is a road to nowhere" Dampier

Phillip “Section 706 is a road to nowhere” Dampier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wheeler

Wheeler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 5 Cable & Phone Companies Intentionally Sabotaging Your Use of the Internet

network_map-1024x459

Level 3′s global network: Orange lines represent Level 3-owned infrastructure, yellow lines show leased or co-owned connections.

Five of the largest Internet Service Providers in the country are intentionally sabotaging your use of the Internet by allowing their network connections to degrade unless they receive extra compensation from content companies they often directly compete with.

Mark Taylor, vice president of content and media for Level 3, wrote a lengthy primer on how Internet providers exchange traffic with each other across a vast global network. While clients of Level 3 are likely to have few problems exchanging traffic back and forth across Level 3′s global network, vital interconnections with other providers that make sure everyone can communicate with everyone else on the Internet are occasional trouble spots.

Every provider has different options to reach other providers, but favor those offering the most direct route possible to minimize “hops” between networks, which slow down the connection and increase the risk of service interruptions. These connections are often arranged through peering agreements. Level 3 has 51 peers, minimized in number to keep traffic moving as efficiently as possible.

This oversaturated port in Dallas cannot handle all the traffic trying to pass through it, so Internet packets are often dropped and traffic speeds are slowed.

This oversaturated port in Dallas cannot handle all the traffic trying to pass through it, so Internet packets are often dropped and traffic speeds are slowed.

Taylor writes most peering arrangements were informal agreements between engineers and did not involve any money changing hands. Today, 48 of the 51 Level 3 peering agreements don’t involve compensation. In fact, Level 3 refuses to pay “arbitrary charges to add interconnection capacity.” Taylor feels such upgrades are a matter of routine and are not costly for either party.

Peering agreements have been a very successful part of the Internet experience, even if end users remain completely in the dark about how Internet traffic moves around the world. In the view of many, customers don’t need to know and shouldn’t care, because their monthly Internet bill more than covers the cost of transporting data back and forth.

Because of ongoing upgrades the average utilization of Level 3′s connections is around 36 percent of capacity — busy enough to justify keeping the connection and providing spare capacity for days when Internet traffic explodes during breaking news or over the holidays.

csat-1024x635However, Taylor says more than a year ago, something suddenly changed at five U.S. Internet Service Providers. They stopped periodic upgrades and allowed some of their connections to become increasingly busy with traffic. Today, six of Level 3′s 51 peer connections are now 90 percent saturated with traffic for several hours a day, which causes traffic to degrade or get lost.

“[The] congestion [has become] permanent, has been in place for well over a year and [...] our peer refuses to augment capacity,” Taylor wrote. “They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfill the requests their customers make for content.”

Taylor adds all but one of the affected connections are U.S. consumer broadband networks with a dominant or exclusive market share. Where competition exists, no provider allows their Internet connections to degrade, said Taylor.

Taylor won’t directly name the offenders, but he left an easy-to-follow trail:

“The companies with the congested peering interconnects also happen to rank dead last in customer satisfaction across all industries in the U.S.,” Taylor wrote. “Not only dead last, but by a massive statistical margin of almost three standard deviations.”

Taylor footnotes the source for his rankings, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. The five worse providers listed for consumer satisfaction:

  • Comcast
  • Time Warner Cable
  • Charter Communications
  • Cox Communications
  • Verizon

AT&T has also made noises about insisting on compensation for its own network upgrades, blaming Netflix traffic.

level3In fact, Netflix traffic seems to be a common point of contention among Internet Service Providers that also sell their own television packages. They now insist the streaming video provider establish direct, paid connections with their networks. Level 3 is affected because it carries a substantial amount of traffic on behalf of Netflix.

Ultimately, the debate is about who pays for network upgrades to keep up with traffic growth. Taylor says Level 3′s cost to add an extra 10Gbps port would be between $10-20 thousand dollars, spare change for multi-billion dollar Americans cable and phone companies. Normally, competition would never allow a traffic dispute like this interfere with a customer’s usage experience. Angry customers would simply switch providers. But the lack of competition prevents this from happening in the United States, leaving customers in the middle.

This leaves Taylor with a question: “Shouldn’t a broadband consumer network with near monopoly control over their customers be expected, if not obligated, to deliver a better experience than this?”

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

zain 4g

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Online Access to Viacom Programming Blocked for Cable ONE Customers

Phillip Dampier May 1, 2014 Cable One, Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

cableoneViacom has blocked website content for Cable ONE customers in an escalating dispute with the cable company over the cost of the programmer’s cable networks.

Cable ONE dropped 15 Viacom channels from its cable systems nationwide April 1 claiming Viacom’s contract renewal price was unreasonable. Subscribers found a way around the dispute by accessing Viacom streamed content online. This week, Viacom closed that loophole and blocked access to all streaming content for Cable ONE subscribers.

“Cable One has chosen to no longer carry Viacom programming and, as a result, it is no longer available to Cable One customers in any form,” Viacom said in a terse statement.

All 730,000 Cable ONE customers in 19 states found the Viacom networks replaced on the cable lineup with alternative programming from BBC America, Sprout, The Blaze, Hallmark Channel, National Geographic, Investigation Discovery, TV One and SundanceTV.

Cable ONE is used to playing hardball with programmers and dropped Time Warner-owned Turner Network programming from its systems for three weeks last fall over a similar dispute, now resolved.

There is no word about the current status of negotiations between Viacom and Cable ONE.

 

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Profiles in Courage: Broadcasters Out of Net Neutrality Debate; Fear Offending Comcast, GOP

nabDespite the fact broadcasters could face steep charges to guarantee their online streamed content reaches viewers in good condition, the National Association of Broadcasters has decided to bow out of the Net Neutrality debate.

The NAB, the nation’s largest television industry trade association, will stay on the sidelines because they fear upsetting Comcast. If Comcast’s merger with Time Warner Cable is approved, Comcast will control 40 percent of the nation’s broadband subscribers and 30% of the country’s cable television viewers.

comcast toll plazaThe trade group is also worried about offending their Republican allies in Congress, which have supported the television industry’s drive towards deregulation. The GOP almost uniformly opposes Net Neutrality.

“NAB has looked at this issue for a number of years and up to this point has decided to remain neutral,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton told TVNewsCheck.

That could leave Internet Service Providers free to impose surcharges and other fees on broadcasters to get a needed high quality connection if Net Neutrality is not enforced.

“Anybody who delivers content over the Internet ought to be concerned about the direction this is going,” says one broadcast industry source, who asked not to be identified.

“You could be in the fast lane or you could be in the slow lane, and you have pay to be in the fast lane,” said another broadcast industry executive. “It would be worthwhile [for the NAB board] to have a discussion about it.”

TVNewsCheck also learned that some broadcasters may end up canceling plans to deliver more of their content online without strong enforcement of Net Neutrality.

“Why would we [expand online video] if we’re just going to get throttled?” the broadcaster asks. “These proposed rules give us no incentive.”

 

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

Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, 1937-1940

Neville Chamberlain, British Prime Minister, 1937-1940

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

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

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

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

Except they are not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Phillip "Your Wallet=Czechoslovakia" Dampier

Phillip “Your Wallet = Czechoslovakia” Dampier

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

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

Justice A. Raymond Randolph had none of it.

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

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

DC Circuit Court

DC Circuit Court

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

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

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

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

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

The FCC promises Verizon it won't do it again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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