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Verizon’s Idea of a “Modest Rate Increase” in New Jersey: 440%; $15 Billion Collected for Phantom Fiber

Verizon-logoWhile the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities was able to quickly settle its differences with Verizon by granting the phone company’s wish to walk away from its commitment to offer 45Mbps broadband across the state, New Jersey ratepayers are out $15 billion in excess phone charges levied since 1993 for promised upgrades many will never get.

The Opportunity New Jersey plan the state government signed with Verizon was supposed to expand advanced broadband across the state in return for “a modest amount of pricing flexibility” in the fees Verizon charged customers in New Jersey. But Verizon is not a modest company and a new report shows the phone company used the agreement to boost rates as much as 440% — primarily through ancillary surcharges including inside wire maintenance, wire investment, an investment recovery fee, a local number portability surcharge, merged local calling area charge, and various other charges for phone features including Caller ID, Call Waiting, etc.

Tom Allibone, the president of LTC Consulting joined forces with New Networks’ Bruce Kushnick to analyze more than 30 years of Verizon New Jersey phone bills and discovered when it comes to tallying up rate increases, Verizon’s addition skills are akin to taking out a bag of M&M’s and only counting the yellow ones.

“This Verizon New Jersey bill from April 2002 [...] has an “FCC Subscriber Line Charge”, which was $6.21 cents per line. Verizon’s quote doesn’t include this charge in their analysis of no increases between 1985 to 2008,” Kushnick writes. “The FCC Line Charge (it has many names), is on every local phone bill and the charge started in 1985. You can’t get service without paying this charge and the money does NOT go to fund the FCC but is direct revenue to Verizon New Jersey.”

verizonnjrateincreaseAfter adding up various other surcharges, Kushnick’s bill increased a lot.

“Add up the ‘Total Monthly Charges’ for 2 phone lines— It’s ugly,” Kushnick said. “While the cost of the ‘monthly charges’ was $25.62, there’s an extra $17.70 cents — 70%. I thought that Verizon said there were no ‘increases.’”

“Anyone who has ever bought a bundled package of services from Verizon (or the other phone or cable companies) knows that they all play this shell game; the price of service you have to pay is always 10-40% more than the advertised price. That’s because the companies leave out the cost of these ancillary charges and taxes in their sale pitch,” he added.

Verizon raised local residential service rates 79% in 2008, according to Kushnick. Business customers paid 70 percent more. Caller ID rates increased 38% — remarkable for a service that has a profit margin of 5,695%. But Verizon did even better boosting the charge for a non-published number by 38% — a service that has a 36,900% profit margin as of 1999 — the services are even cheaper to offer now.

Telephone service is one of those products that should have declined in price, especially after phone companies fully depreciated their copper wire networks — long ago paid off. Companies like Verizon have cut the budgets for outdoor wire maintenance and the number of employees tasked with keeping service up and running has been reduced by over 70 percent since 1985, dramatically reducing Verizon’s costs. But Verizon customers paid more for phone service, not less.

The cost of service might not have been as much of an issue had Verizon taken the excess funds and invested them in promised upgrades, but that has not happened for a significant percentage of the state and likely never will. Instead, they just increased company profits. More recently, Verizon has directed much of its investments into its more profitable wireless division.

Even though Verizon achieved total victory with the Christie Administration-dominated BPU, the company is still making threats about any future plans for investment.

“It’s important that regulators and legislators support public policies that encourage broadband growth in New Jersey rather than ones that could jeopardize the state’s highly competitive communications industry, or risk future investments by providers like Verizon,” wrote Sam Delgado, vice president of external affairs.

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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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Public Service Commission to N.Y. Towns: You Have No Negotiating Leverage Over Time Warner Cable

rensselaer countyRensselaer County is just a short drive to the east of New York’s capital city Albany, but for residents in the southern half of the county, it might as be in the middle of nowhere.

Welcome to the world of broadband have’s and have-nots. If you live in the county seat — Troy, Internet access is widely available. But if you live in a community like Nassau, in the southern part of the county, getting Internet access is strictly a hit or miss affair, and in practical terms, the only entity that will decide if you have reasonable access to broadband is Time Warner Cable.

Verizon has decided that the days of expanding DSL in rural areas are over. There is no possibility those without access to DSL now will ever see Verizon’s fiber network FiOS coming their way either. That has left many residents with an unfortunate choice between heavily usage-capped and slow satellite Internet access or heavily usage-capped and expensive wireless Internet from a cell phone company.

Nassau does have a franchise agreement with Time Warner Cable, the only cable operator willing to offer service in this part of upstate New York. The contract specifies Time Warner will bring service to any neighborhood where there are at least 20 residences within a one-mile radius.

The Record News covered negotiations for a franchise renewal for the cable company last year, and found Time Warner Cable held all the cards and the town had almost no leverage in the negotiations:

A rare sight in southern Renssalear County.

A rare sight in southern Rensselaer County.

“We really have no negotiating leverage or power and the Public Service Commission (PSC) was helpful in looking at the contract, but told us we were basically out of luck with any efforts to require anything,” said town Supervisor David Fleming, who said he was told by Time Warner Cable that specific areas in Nassau are “not currently serviceable.”

The town had marked out all the areas that were not served and met with Time Warner to try to gain extensions of service.

“This only succeeded in a couple of areas,” he said. “This is because PSC told us we have no bargaining power. The only big concession we were able to get was to reduce the number of houses per mile needed for service, but this was a pretty standard fall back for Time Warner.”

The town succeeded in negotiating standards down to 20 dwellings per cable mile from 30. “We continue to explore this matter, but frankly, there has been a great deal of unwillingness to expand service in our community,” Fleming said. “The state has been of no help in expanding services.”

As a result, Time Warner has been generally adamant about not expanding service to residents like Alan Austin, who lives on a street where 11 houses are built within a half-mile, technically the same ratio required by Time Warner Cable.

Rensselaer sign“We’ve asked them to bring the service and they won’t,” Austin told the newspaper.

Actually, Time Warner is willing to expand into Austin’s neighborhood — for the right price.

Time Warner agreed it would install cable service if the 11 homes collectively paid a $12,000 installation fee.

“We’re out of luck because we’re never going to get another nine houses in this mile,” Austin said. “We can’t get anybody to bring service here, unless we’re willing to pay an exorbitant amount.”

As for alternatives, don’t call Verizon, they’ll call you. The phone company has suggested rural residents consider their wireless broadband and phone service, assuming a cell tower can reach them with a reasonable signal. But the cost is very high — at least $50 for only 4GB of usage per month and another $20 for telephone service.

Austin is lucky enough to receive some reception from Sprint, which is slightly more reasonably priced. But to get a reliable signal, he has to place his mobile Wi-Fi hotspot in his non-climate-controlled attic. When temperatures fall or soar, the hotspot stops working. Austin has rigged a remote-powered fan in the attic to blow cool air on the hotspot this summer to keep it up and running.

“It’s ridiculous,” he admitted. “People don’t believe me when I tell them these things, but that’s what we deal with.”

The newspaper also pondered the impact of being an Internet have-not with respect to education. In more than a few communities in the county, teachers avoid giving assignments that require students to do research over the Internet, putting them at a potentially serious disadvantage when they attend college.

Businesses also avoid areas where broadband poses a significant challenge, which affects jobs. Selling a home in a broadband blackout zone can also be difficult as savvy buyers increasingly now insist on Internet accessibility.

Without the benefit of bundling discounts, rural Americans pay substantially higher prices for telecommunications services. A promotional bundle from Time Warner Cable can provide phone, Internet, and television service for less than $100 a month. Austin says his package costs more than twice that — more than $220 monthly between paying bills for Verizon phone service, DirectTV television and Sprint for broadband Internet.

These kinds of challenges are ready-made to be addressed on the local government level, but cable and phone companies lobbied successfully for near-total deregulation, making it impossible for town officials to provoke change. In fact, had the community successfully revoked Time Warner Cable’s franchise, no other commercial provider would be willing to step in. That remains common in every community considering its future relationship with the area’s cable company. An informal understanding between cable operators keep them from competing outside of their defined territories.

That leaves Nassau officials with no options, except whether to renew Time Warner’s franchise on the company’s terms for five or ten years. Time Warner wouldn’t hear of a five-year contract so the town capitulated and agreed to a 10-year franchise renewal that will continue to leave residents like Austin without much hope for cable broadband service indefinitely.

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Frontier Raises Standalone Broadband, FiOS Video Pricing: $5 Increase for New Customers

frontier simply broadbandAs of May 1st, Frontier Communications has raised the price of its standalone DSL service $5 a month, primarily because its competitors have also raised prices.

Current subscribers to Frontier’s basic 6Mbps ADSL service Simply Broadband will continue to pay $29.99 a month for now, but new customers will see a rate increase to $34.99.

“We increased the price [... because it] better reflects the value of that offering, given the robust capability of our network and comparable pricing from our competitors,” Frontier CEO Maggie Wilderotter told Wall Street analysts on a quarterly results conference call.

Frontier also announced Frontier FiOS TV price increases that “reflect increasing programming costs” also taking effect this month.

Frontier added 37,000 new broadband customers during the first quarter, a record for the company and the fifth consecutive quarter of broadband customer growth. Frontier increasingly depends on broadband to retain existing customers and develop new customer relationships in rural areas where broadband service has not been available in the past.

“As of April, 74% of our customers have access to 12Mbps, up from 60% in the fourth quarter,” said chief operating officer Dan McCarthy. “Now 61% of households we pass can get 20Mbps or greater, and 83% can get 6Mbps. At the end of the fourth quarter in 2012 only 40% of our network was capable of 20Mbps and only 50% was capable of 12Mbps.”

frontier frankDespite the speed increases, cable competitors still made their presence known. Most cable companies sell faster service than Frontier offers and on the low-end, Time Warner Cable’s 2Mbps $15 broadband package, marketed to current DSL customers, was acknowledged to have an impact by Wilderotter, but not enough to bring a significant change in competitive intensity.

Frontier continues to argue that broadband speeds are simply not that important to most customers. McCarthy claimed that less than 20% of Frontier’s broadband customers subscribe to speeds above 6Mbps.

“Quite frankly we’ve had focus groups with our customers and potential customers [...] and what they say is that they don’t really know what speed they have,” McCarthy said. “They just need enough and that’s really what it’s about — providing a good quality product that’s reliable and gives them the speed that they need. It’s not necessarily a 60Mbps connection that they’re really never going to use.”

“We’ve also found [in the focus groups that we do] that a lot of customers, even those upgrading to higher speeds don’t really change their behavior,” Wilderotter added. “It’s not like they have 10Mbps more so now they’re a gamer. They just keep doing the same thing they were doing before. We still have the majority of our customers taking around 6Mbps and they have a choice to go up but they decide that that’s enough for what they’re doing and we’re happy to sell them just what they need.”

Frontier has also reduced its landline losses nationwide to 9,600 during the last quarter. It will begin running advertising this year that reminds customers landline service is often more robust than wireless or Voice over IP during power or weather-related outages. Wilderotter said emphasizing the traditional landline as a protective and security measure really resonates with Frontier’s customers.

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TDS Acquires BendBroadband of Oregon in $261 Million Deal; Nothing Changes for Now

tds_hp_logoCentral Oregon’s independent cable television and broadband company — BendBroadband — has been sold to Telephone and Data Systems (TDS), a Chicago-based telephone company in a deal worth $261 million.

TDS, which also owns southwestern U.S. Baja Broadband and 84 percent of US Cellular, promises nothing will change for the company’s 36,000 cable TV, 41,000 Internet, and 22,000 phone customers “for the foreseeable future.” The company also said it plans to keep BendBroadband’s name and 280 employees.

BendBroadband has provided cable television service in Bend, Redmond, Sunriver, Prineville, Madras, and Sisters as far back as 1955, when it imported long distance KOIN (the CBS affiliate out of Portland), KLOR (Portland’s ABC affiliate), and KVAL-TV (Eugene’s NBC affiliate) for the benefit of viewers that could not receive broadcast television station signals from western Oregon blocked by the Cascade Range — high mountains that separated cities like Portland from Bend.

bendbroadband“While BendBroadband has made many smart investments, it is clear that we will need to join forces with a like-minded company to gain the scale necessary to provide the cutting-edge technology and personalized customer experiences that consumers expect,” BendBroadband’s website says.

The company also felt the cable industry was entering a new era of consolidation, necessitating a sale to improve negotiating power with television networks over programming costs.

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FCC’s Tom Wheeler Promises to “Preempt” State Laws Banning Municipal Broadband

LUS Fiber if Lafayette, La., municipal broadband provider.

LUS Fiber is Lafayette, La., municipal broadband provider.

During remarks at the National Cable Show in Los Angeles, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler promised he would stimulate more broadband competition by overriding state laws that presently restrict or ban municipal broadband networks.

“One place where it may be possible is municipally owned or authorized broadband systems. I understand that the experience with community broadband is mixed, that there have been both successes and failures. But if municipal governments—the same ones that granted cable franchises—want to pursue it, they shouldn’t be inhibited by state laws. I have said before, that I believe the FCC has the power – and I intend to exercise that power – to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband.”

After making the remarks, a debate has emerged over the exact definition of “preempt.” With at least 20 states limiting or banning community-owned broadband networks, the FCC would have to overturn or invalidate the state laws to render them moot.

At least one judge — Laurence Silberman — believes the FCC has the authority to take “measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.” In a footnote, Silberman wrote that “[a]n example of a paradigmatic barrier to infrastructure investment would be state laws that prohibit municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure to compete against private companies.”

A FCC spokesperson, in response to inquiries about Wheeler’s remarks, was less conclusive.

“It’s too early to say how [Wheeler] will address existing state laws,” said the spokesperson.

That leaves open the question about whether the FCC intends to cancel existing state laws or simply prohibit new ones from being enacted. That distinction could make a tremendous difference in states like North Carolina, where a fierce battle over protecting municipal broadband was lost when Republicans took control of the state government. Telecom lobbyists, often working under the auspices of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have either directly banned municipal broadband networks from getting off the ground or placed so many restrictions on service to make projects untenable.

The Consumerist points out in Pennsylvania, municipal broadband is only allowed in communities if a telephone company does not provide any type of broadband to anyone in their service area. In Nevada, only towns with fewer than 25,000 people or counties with 50,000 can host community-owned broadband networks — numbers likely too low to sustain such a venture financially.

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N.J. Approves Verizon-Friendly Settlement; Verizon Now Off the Hook for Fiber Upgrades

bpuThe New Jersey Board of Public Utilities today voted unanimously to approve a Verizon-friendly settlement that lets the phone company off the hook for its 1993 commitment to offer broadband service to every resident in the state who wants it.

Critics call the decision a “total capitulation” by state regulators that proved “very amenable to Verizon’s agenda.”

Verizon will now be allowed to substitute its costly, usage-capped, high-speed 4G LTE wireless service in rural areas instead of expanding DSL or its fiber optic network FiOS.

Verizon won deregulation two decades ago in an agreement known as “Opportunity New Jersey” in return for a commitment to expand high speed Internet access to all of New Jersey by 2010 — a deadline long missed. Critics charge Verizon collected as much as $15 billion in unregulated service revenue it would have otherwise never received, yet stopped its fiber optic rollout more than two years ago.

A number of rural New Jersey communities including Hopewell, Alloway and Pilesgrove townships opposed Verizon’s settlement proposal because it would let the company walk away from its earlier commitments and leave parts of southern New Jersey without any broadband service. Now those communities may eventually be served by Verizon Wireless, but at a significant cost starting at $50 a month for up to just 4GB of broadband usage.

Verizon gets to keep its current deregulation framework in place as part of the settlement.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities consists of five commissioners all appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate for six year, staggered terms. Gov. Chris Christie’s appointees now dominate the BPU, and critics charge he uses the regulatory agency as a political patronage dumping ground. Earlier this year, he faced criticism for appointing the wife of a longtime Christie ally to lead the board. Dianne Solomon served on Christie’s transition team and brought a very thin resume to the position — serving as a paralegal and an umpire certified by the United States Tennis Association.

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AT&T’s Magic Fairyland U-verse GigaPower Fiber “Expansion”: Don’t Hold Your Breath

Fairy_Tales3One of the first lessons a good magician learns is that to best impress an audience, one has to at least show an actual rabbit going into the hat before making it disappear.

AT&T is no David Copperfield. In its latest sleight of hand, AT&T today announced a major potential expansion of its U-verse GigaPower fiber to the home network to 21 major cities across its landline service area, with future plans to expand to as many as 100 eventually.

“We are excited to bring GigaPower to 100 cities and towns,” Lori Lee, head of AT&T’s U-verse unit, said in a phone interview with Bloomberg, which accompanied a press release. “We will work with local officials as we look for areas of strong demand and pro-investment policy.”

Among the cities slated to get fiber upgrades are Austin and Kansas City — where AT&T will face competition from Google Fiber. But AT&T isn’t bothering to compete head-on with any municipal fiber providers like Chattanooga’s EPB, Wilson, N.C.’s Greenlight, or Lafayette, La.’s LUSFiber. North Carolina, Texas and California are the states with the most cities chosen to potentially get upgrades.

But AT&T has yet to fully deliver on its earlier promise to deploy fiber to the home service in Austin, where single home residential customers have usually been stymied by general unavailability of the fiber service. AT&T has consistently refused to say exactly how many customers have actually been able to sign up for AT&T GigaPower fiber service.

For customers actually able to buy GigaPower, many are already served by an existing AT&T fiber cable. It is not uncommon to find fiber hookups in new housing developments or multi-dwelling units like apartment buildings and condominiums. Most customers don’t realize they are fed service from a fiber cable brought to the back of the building that interfaces with plain old copper wiring, providing service artificially slowed by the company in an effort to provide consistently marketed broadband products.

AT&T GigaPower is easy to provide in these locations with very little extra investment. Tearing up streets and yards to replace copper wiring with fiber optics is another matter, one AT&T has avoided for years by choosing a less costly fiber to the neighborhood approach that leaves existing copper wiring on phone poles and in customer homes largely intact. Moving to fiber to the home service would require AT&T to dramatically boost capital spending to cover the cost of stringing fiber across the backyards of millions of customers.

But earlier this year, AT&T promised investors it was actually planning to cut its budget for capital expenses in 2014 to $21 billion, most of that still earmarked for its profitable wireless network. That is down at least $200 million from 2013. Unless AT&T reneges on its earlier commitment to Wall Street, even David Copperfield couldn’t make fiber to the home service from AT&T magically appear.

Notice the word "may"

Welcome to Neverland. Despite exciting press releases, AT&T has indicated it won’t spend the money required for widespread fiber expansion. But then, AT&T’s own graphics only promise these communities “may” get GigaPower.

In fact, AT&T has been telling investors it is more than halfway done completing its Project VIP effort, which budgeted $14 billion over three years to further expand basic U-verse service, improve its 4G LTE network, and expand rural wireless coverage within AT&T local service areas. Project VIP is integral to AT&T’s plan to eventually walk away from its rural wired infrastructure in favor of a wireless platform providing wireless landline service and 4G wireless broadband.

To assuage investors fearing AT&T is about to pull out the credit card and go on a fiber broadband shopping spree, AT&T carefully notes towards the bottom of its press release, “this expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014.”

In other words, AT&T is not committing any money not already earmarked as part of Project VIP for its fiber expansion.

Without that money, if you live in a single-family residential home and are currently served by AT&T copper wiring, it is very unlikely the company will offer fiber upgrades anytime soon.

So why is AT&T promising vaporware upgrades it cannot possibly manage on its current budget?

AT&T will work with local leaders in these markets to discuss ways to bring the service to their communities. Similar to previously announced metro area selections in Austin and Dallas and advanced discussions in Raleigh-Durham and Winston-Salem, communities that have suitable network facilities, and show the strongest investment cases based on anticipated demand and the most receptive  policies will influence these future selections and coverage maps within selected areas. This initiative continues AT&T’s ongoing commitment to economic development in these communities, bringing jobs, advanced technologies and infrastructure.

This expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014. – See more at: http://about.att.com/story/att_eyes_100_u_s_cities_and_municipalities_for_its_ultra_fast_fiber_network.html#sthash.Nh31BZEu.dpuf
This expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014. – See more at: http://about.att.com/story/att_eyes_100_u_s_cities_and_municipalities_for_its_ultra_fast_fiber_network.html#sthash.Nh31BZEu.dpuf
This expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014. – See more at: http://about.att.com/story/att_eyes_100_u_s_cities_and_municipalities_for_its_ultra_fast_fiber_network.html#sthash.Nh31BZEu.dpuf
This expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014. – See more at: http://about.att.com/story/att_eyes_100_u_s_cities_and_municipalities_for_its_ultra_fast_fiber_network.html#sthash.Nh31BZEu.dpuf
Phillip "AT&T has a larger agenda here and it isn't fiber" Dampier

Phillip “AT&T has a larger agenda here and it isn’t fiber” Dampier

For years, AT&T’s lobbyists have promised politicians everything under the sun — telecom nirvana — if only Ma Bell can be unshackled by burdensome regulations. Some states have accepted AT&T’s deal only to find their residents’ phone bills rapidly increasing with no corresponding improvement in service. U-verse is AT&T’s effort to stay relevant at a time when mobile phones are replacing landlines and cable companies have poached a number of their customers.

But in return for that deregulation, AT&T delivered an cheaper, inferior fiber-to-the-neighborhood technology that requires hideously large infrastructure cabinets, often installed in front of customer homes, that has trouble keeping up with cable broadband speeds.

But nothing ever satisfies AT&T.

Recently, their lobbyists have been skulking around in the shadows of state legislatures ghostwriting new bills that would permit AT&T to abandon its rural landline customers altogether to focus on the far more profitable wireless business. But consumer groups have gotten wise to AT&T’s astroturf and lobbying efforts and have begun to limit their successes.

Meanwhile, along comes Google, promising groundbreaking, affordable fiber to the home gigabit broadband service to a handful of communities willing to work with them in a de facto partnership — cutting through bureaucratic red tape to facilitate infrastructure upgrades — a radical change from the traditional regulator-provider framework.

Hundreds of cities fell all over themselves competing for the privilege, and it didn’t require a penny in lobbying or campaign contributions.

Where Google has been willing to offer service, most communities have been more than thankful and have made life easier for the creative entrant.

If it worked for Google, why can’t it work for AT&T? As a result, the company that spent years telling customers fiber upgrades didn’t make any sense and that few people actually needed gigabit speeds, AT&T might appear to have reversed course. Dig a little deeper and you find a deeper agenda:

“Communities that have suitable network facilities, and show the strongest investment cases based on anticipated demand and the most receptive policies will influence these future selections and coverage maps within selected areas.”

Translation: Communities that already have considerable fiber infrastructure previously installed and are willing to bend to the business and public policy agenda of AT&T will make all the difference whether your city will be considered for a future fiber upgrade or not.

In the end, even if a community does everything AT&T asks of it, it still has no commitment AT&T will actually deliver the fiber upgrades they only promise “may” happen. But AT&T will have achieved its public policy goals of abolishing regulations and limiting oversight, all without have to install a single strand of fiber.

That is a deal community leaders should think twice about making with a company that has always looked out for its investors long before its customers.

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Verizon Wireless to Acquire Central California’s Golden State Cellular

golden_state_cellular_logo_2The cell phone provider serving Yosemite National Park and the surrounding California counties of Tuolumne, Calav­eras, Amador, Alpine and Mari­posa has been acquired by Verizon Wireless.

The independent Golden State Cellular provides cell service in rural areas of the Mother Lode and cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia, largely bypassed by larger carriers since 1989.

Verizon had maintained a minority interest in the cellular company for several years and provided roaming service for the company outside of its home areas.

GSC operates as a partnership between several regional independent telephone companies.

Verizon would provide funding for 4G LTE upgrades and potentially expand coverage in tourist areas around the region.

The acquisition is awaiting FCC approval.

 

 

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