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Federal Court Dismisses AT&T Throttling Lawsuit; AT&T Skates on a Loophole

Signage for an AT&T store is seen in New York October 29, 2014. AT&T Inc has made a bid for Yahoo Inc's internet business, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

Signage for an AT&T store is seen in New York October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal appeals court in California on Monday dismissed a U.S. government lawsuit that accused AT&T Inc  of deception for reducing internet speeds for customers with unlimited mobile data plans once their use exceeded certain levels.

The company, however, could still face a fine from the Federal Communications Commission regarding the slowdowns, also called “data throttling.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said it ordered a lower court to dismiss the data-throttling lawsuit, which was filed in 2014 by the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC sued AT&T on the grounds that the No. 2 U.S. wireless carrier failed to inform consumers it would slow the speeds of heavy data users on unlimited plans. In some cases, data speeds were slowed by nearly 90 percent, the lawsuit said.

The FTC said the practice was deceptive and, as a result, barred under the Federal Trade Commission Act. AT&T argued that there was an exception for common carriers, and the appeals court agreed:

The panel reversed the district court’s denial of AT&T Mobility LLC’s motion to dismiss, and remanded for an entry of an order of dismissal in an action brought by the Federal Trade Commission under section 5 of the FTC Act that took issue with the adequacy of AT&T’s disclosures regarding its data throttling plan, under which AT&T intentionally reduced the data speed of its customers with unlimited mobile data plans.

Section 5 of the FTC Act contains an exemption for “common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce.” 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2). The panel held that AT&T was excluded from the coverage of section 5 of the FTC Act, and FTC’s claims could not be maintained. Specifically, the panel held that, based on the language and structure of the FTC Act, the common carrier exception was a status-based exemption and that AT&T, as a common carrier, was not covered by section 5.

Asked about the appeals court ruling, a spokesman for AT&T said: “We’re pleased with the decision.”

An FTC spokesman said the agency has not yet decided whether to appeal. “We are disappointed with the ruling and are considering our options for moving forward,” FTC spokesman Jay Mayfield wrote in an emailed comment.

The company, however, could face action from the FCC. In June 2015, the agency proposed a fine of $100 million for AT&T’s alleged failure to inform customers with unlimited data plans about the speed reductions. AT&T has contested that proposed fine.

(By Diane Bartz; Editing by Paul Simao and Matthew Lewis; Additional reporting by Stop the Cap!)

FCC Wants Details About Usage Caps and Zero Rating from Comcast, T-Mobile, and AT&T

An AT&T Logo is pictured on the side of a building in Pasadena, California, January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

An AT&T Logo is pictured on the side of a building in Pasadena, California, January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Editor’s Note: Stop the Cap! learned in May from a well-placed source that the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if Comcast moved to further expand them in its service areas across the country. It appears that day has arrived although it is too early to tell what direction the FCC will move in. Comcast’s data cap program has grown the most controversial, triggering at least 13,000 consumer complaints from what the company continues to claim is only a limited “trial.” But wireless providers’ growing interest in exempting certain data from counting against a customer’s allowance — a practice known as “zero rating” — has also attracted interest because of its potential impact on Net Neutrality policies.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday it has asked major Internet providers to discuss innovative data policies in the wake of the government’s Net Neutrality rules.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters Thursday that commission staff sent letters on Wednesday to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile “to come in and have a discussion with us about some of the innovative things that they are doing.”

Wheeler said the letters are focused on data policies.

T Mobile has introduced a new “Binge On” policy that does not count some digital video services against data limits.

Comcast is rolling out its own live streaming TV service called “Stream TV” that would not count usage against data caps if using Comcast services.

AT&T has had “sponsored data plan” programs that allow content providers to subsidize users wireless data.

Wheeler said the commission wants to welcome innovation in its open Internet order. He said the commission wants to “keep aware” of what is going on.

On Dec. 4, a U.S. appeals court heard arguments on Friday over the legality of the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, in a case that may ultimately determine how consumers get access to content on the Internet.

The fight is the latest battle over Obama administration rules requiring broadband providers to treat all data equally, rather than giving or selling access to a so-called Web “fast lane.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into Broadband Speeds and Performance

Phillip Dampier October 26, 2015 Broadband Speed, Cablevision, Consumer News, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters, TWC (see Charter), Verizon Comments Off on New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into Broadband Speeds and Performance
Schneiderman

Schneiderman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Altice Acquires Cablevision for $17.7 Billion; Generous Offer Too Good to Pass Up

Phillip Dampier September 21, 2015 Altice NV, Cablevision, Competition, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters, Video Comments Off on Altice Acquires Cablevision for $17.7 Billion; Generous Offer Too Good to Pass Up
Altice President Patrick Drahi at the French National Assembly in Paris, May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

Altice President Patrick Drahi at the French National Assembly in Paris, May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) – Altice NV, one of the most acquisitive European telecoms groups, made a major move into the U.S. market on Thursday with a deal to buy fourth-largest operator Cablevision Systems Corp for $17.7 billion including debt.

Altice founder Patrick Drahi, who built a telecoms and cable empire via debt-fueled acquisitions in France, Portugal and Israel, is expected to apply his cost-cutting zeal to achieve a target of $900 million in annual synergies at Cablevision.

Drahi told a Goldman Sachs conference in New York that more than 300 Cablevision employees earn pay checks of over $300,000.

“This we will change,” said the French-Israeli billionaire.

Drahi entered the United States in May by buying a small, St Louis-based cable group called Suddenlink for $9.1 billion. He declared at the time that Altice would look for more acquisitions and eventually earn half its revenue from the United States.

In talks that began in June, Drahi convinced Charles Dolan, the patriarch of the Irish-American family that owns Cablevision, to sell. Cablevision has 3.1 million customers in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey, but it has struggled with declining video subscribers like other cable companies.

“This deal takes us into the most affluent part of the United States and will be a good basis for further expansion,” said Altice Chief Executive Dexter Goei on a conference call. “We think there are significant ways to improve profitability by pooling purchasing and other costs between Cablevision and Suddenlink.”

optimumAltice will pay $34.90 in cash per share, a 22 percent premium to Wednesday’s closing price of $28.54, giving Cablevision an equity value of $10 billion.

Shares in Altice closed up 0.68 percent at 24.5 euros, after gaining nearly 13 percent at the open. Cablevision shares rose 13.9 percent to $32.51, close to the offer price and a sign that few investors expect another bidder for Cablevision to emerge.

Altice’s bid for Cablevision will face scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice, but analysts at Jefferies said they expected “little pushback.”

‘LITTLE PUSHBACK’ SEEN

Investors who back Drahi’s acquisition spree have made Altice the best-performing telecom stock in Europe this year, up more than 50 percent before Thursday’s deal, compared with an 8.4 percent rise in the sector index .

It is unclear what other assets Altice may target in the United States, where it will have to deal with fast-changing competition as cable groups consolidate and cope with subscriber losses to video streaming services such as Netflix.

alticeDrahi has said Altice may look at properties to be sold under Charter Communications Inc’s takeover of Time Warner Cable Inc. Another target could be Cox Communications, but the closely held company has repeatedly said it is not for sale.

Drahi has also said that Altice could buy a U.S. wireless carrier “someday” to offer subscribers a “quadruple play” of Internet, television, and fixed and mobile telecoms.

Altice, which has been snapping up television and radio targets in Europe in recent months, will become the owner of the Newsday newspaper and local news channel News 12 Networks as part of the Cablevision deal.

Goei said the company would not interfere in the editorial side of the loss-making media businesses but would aim to run them more efficiently. He ruled out divesting the units.

He said the goal was to improve Cablevision’s margins to the “low 40s range” compared with current level of 28 percent, which lags the sector average of 35 percent.

Jim Dolan

Jim Dolan

Allan Nichols, analyst at investment research firm Morningstar, said he was “somewhat skeptical” that Altice could deliver on the savings since content costs were higher in the United States than in Europe.

“That said, Altice has an impressive record of cost reduction, and we expect it will be much more aggressive than the Dolan family in cutting expenses, including reducing employee count,” he wrote in a note.

To finance the deal, Altice will raise $8.6 billion in new debt mostly at Cablevision and none at its European holding, which is already highly leveraged. It will also raise $3.3 billion in equity, 70 percent by issuing shares at Altice and 30 percent from private equity fund BC Partners and Canadian investment fund CPP Investment Board, backers of Suddenlink.

Altice, whose corporate headquarters are in the Netherlands, said it would issue Class A shares, which have fewer voting rights than the B shares held largely by Drahi. Altice created the dual-class structure in June to allow more stock deals without Drahi losing control.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan said in a statement the time was right for new ownership and he and his family “believe that Patrick Drahi and Altice will be truly worthy successors.”

The Dolans will continue to own media and sports assets through AMC Networks and The Madison Square Garden Company — owner of the New York Rangers and New York Knicks — which are not part of the deal.

JP Morgan, BNP Paribas and Barclays have committed to finance the deal and also advised Altice on it. Cablevision was advised by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Guggenheim Securities and PJT Partners.

CNBC reports Cablevision has finally sold out… to Altice NV a cable operator that dominates in France. (2:51)

Neil Campling, global TMT analyst at Aviate Global, says there could be further mergers in the telecoms market following Altice’s acquisition of U.S. provider Cablevision. (3:20)

 (By Leila Abboud. Additional reporting by Rob Smith in London and Liana B. Baker and Malathi Nayak in New York; Writing by Christian Plumb; Editing by Andrew Callus and Mark Potter)

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