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Comcast Bids $65 Billion in Cash to Acquire Fox Media Assets

(Reuters) – Comcast Corp offered $65 billion on Wednesday for 21st Century Fox’s media assets, emboldened by AT&T prevailing over the Trump administration’s attempt to block a merger with Time Warner, Inc..

The all-cash offer for Fox’s movie and TV studios and other assets including the X-Men franchise, opens a war with Walt Disney, which has bid $52 billion in stock. Comcast described the bid as 19 percent higher than Disney’s bid today. The transaction does not include the FOX television network, network owned-and-operated local television stations, or its cable news channels Fox News and Fox Business.

Comcast is expected to lead a wave of traditional media companies trying to combine distribution and production to compete with Netflix Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google. The younger firms produce content, sell it online directly to consumers and often offer lucrative targeted advertising.

AT&T won a court victory over skeptical U.S. antitrust regulators on Tuesday when a federal judge allowed it to buy Time Warner for $85 billion, which was widely taken as a green light for Comcast to submit its expected bid.

Comcast may face more difficulty than AT&T and other would-be acquirers, though, since Comcast already has its own TV and movie studios in the NBC Universal division, a content overlap AT&T-Time Warner lacked.

Shares of Comcast, Fox and Disney were barely changed in after-hours trade.

Comcast in a statement outlined an offer that was similar to Disney’s, including a commitment to the same divestitures. It said that it would agree to litigate any action taken by the Justice Department to block the deal.

In a letter to the Fox board, Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts said, “We are also highly confident that our proposed transaction will obtain all necessary regulatory approvals in a timely manner and that our transaction is as or more likely to receive regulatory approval than the Disney transaction.”

Justice Department lawyers who tried to stop AT&T’s $85 billion deal expect consumers will lose out as bigger companies raise prices, and some lawyers saw that as a concern in a Comcast-Fox deal which would put two movie studios and two major television brands under one roof.

“One cannot ignore the fact that there’s less independent content to go around,” after the AT&T deal, said Henry Su, an antitrust expert with Constantine Cannon LLP.

Still, the AT&T court fight gave Comcast valuable information about how to structure a Fox deal, said David Scharf, a litigation expert with Morrison Cohen.

“Any deal that’s coming down the pike that’s not baked yet knows the government’s playbook. They know what the government is concerned about,” he said. “They can learn how to structure a deal to make it more palatable.”

Disney itself has “surgically” structured a transaction that “might be doable,” avoiding Fox Broadcasting and big Fox sports channels, U.S. antitrust chief Makan Delrahim said last week.

Comcast may have a tough time winning over Fox’s largest shareholder, Rupert Murdoch’s family. They own a 17-percent stake and would face a multi-billion dollar capital gains tax bill if he accepted an all-cash offer from Comcast, tax experts have told Reuters.

Craig Moffett, an analyst with MoffettNathanson, said in a research note that Disney could prevail for other reasons.

“Disney has the superior balance sheet, cost of debt, equity and rationale to emerge victorious over Comcast in a bidding war,” Moffett said.

Reporting by Sheila Dang in New York and Diane Bartz in Washington; Additional reporting by Arjun Panchadar in Bengaluru; Writing by Peter Henderson; Editing by Maju Samuel and Lisa Shumaker.

CNBC reports Comcast has officially submitted its $65 billion all-cash offer to acquire assets of 21st Century Fox. Disney is also a contender and may respond by sweetening its own offer. (2:29)

AT&T/Time Warner: The Big Bundle is Back! Introducing the $522/Mo Telecom Bill

Phillip Dampier June 13, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Video 3 Comments

Your bundle is bigger than ever.

A-la-carte TV is still dead. Long live the super-sized bundle!

If AT&T and Time Warner wanted to deliver a message to the cable industry as a result of their now-approved blockbuster merger deal, it is one that promises hundreds, if not thousands of more TV channels, movies and shows headed your way in the coming days, bundled into super-sized pricier packages of television, telephone, and internet service.

Despite the fact consumers claim they want to pick and pay only for the entertainment options they specifically want, in reality people are paying for more bundled packages and services — usually from multiple online streaming services — than ever before, with no possibility they will ever watch everything these services have to offer.

AT&T and Time Warner are well aware customers are now subscribing to cable television -and- streaming video services like Hulu and Netflix. But many customers are also buying streaming live cable TV alternatives, despite the fact they already subscribe to a cable television package. Given the option of selling you an inexpensive package of a dozen cable channels you claim to want or selling you much larger and more expensive bundles of services many are actually buying, AT&T will follow the money every time.

What will be different as a result of this merger is where you buy that programming. Before, you may have purchased AT&T Fiber internet access, AT&T wireless mobile phone service, a HBO GO subscription through DirecTV Now, a cable TV alternative, and Netflix. Now, with the exception of Netflix, all of that money will go directly to AT&T. The company will also be able to enhance their bottom line by monetizing content viewed over mobile devices. After taking control of Time Warner’s vast entertainment offerings, which range from HBO to Turner Broadcasting networks like CNN and TNT, AT&T will generously bestow liberal (or possibly free) access to this content for its broadband and wireless customers, while those served by other providers will have to pay up to watch. AT&T will ultimately set the terms of its licensing agreements. AT&T Wireless customers with unlimited data plans already have a sample of this with a free year of DirecTV Now, which customers of other wireless companies have to pay to watch.

AT&T plans to offer the best deals to customers who bundle everything through AT&T. The “quad play” bundle of TV, internet, home phone, and wireless phone will offer customers discounts on each element of the package, but some may experience sticker shock even with the discounts.

The Wall Street Journal noted a premium AT&T customer could pay more than $500 a month for AT&T’s best package — that’s more than $6,000 a year. Most bundled AT&T customers will pay about half that — around $246 a month for a package of 100 Mbps internet, a home phone line, wireless phone and a limited TV package bundling Time Warner content, including HBO. The entry level ‘poverty’ package will still cost around $115 a month.

By controlling each element of the package, AT&T can discourage a-la-carte package pickers by substantially raising the price of standalone services, to encourage bundling. That explains why many customers take a promotional TV offer priced just $10-20 more than the $70 broadband-only package some customers start with. If broadband-only service costs $40 a month and the TV package also costs $40 a month, those leaning towards cord-cutting would find it much easier to pass on cable television.

With Comcast on the verge of picking up much of 21st Century Fox’s content library and studio, Comcast will be able to defend its own turf creating similar giant bundles of content to keep its customers happy. Wall Street is already putting pressure on Verizon to respond with an acquisition of its own to protect its base of FiOS and Verizon Wireless customers.

Companies likely left out in the cold of the next wave of media and entertainment consolidation include online content companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, which will be stuck licensing someone else’s content or bankrolling many more original productions. Charter Communications, which has a small deal with AMC for content, is also stranded, as are smaller cable companies like Cox, Altice, and Mediacom. Independent phone companies like CenturyLink, Windstream, Consolidated, and Frontier are also in a bad position if Wall Street determines telecom companies without content divisions are in serious trouble.

Netflix stands alone as the behemoth content company, and is not likely to be impacted by the current wave of consolidation. Hulu will most likely end up in the hands of a telephone or cable company, most likely Comcast, if it successfully acquires Fox’s ownership share of Hulu.

For customers, your future choice of provider is about to get more complicated. In addition to pondering speed tiers and wireless coverage maps, you will also have to decide what content packages are the most valuable. Your choices will range from basic company-owned networks to third-party services like Netflix and Hulu, as well as full cable TV lineups ranging from DirecTV Now to XFINITY TV. Then get ready for the bill, which will likely include charges for most, if not all, of these services.

The Wall Street Journal explains the current wave of media consolidation. (2:44)

Spectrum Customers Get Bill Shocked Again as Set-Top Box and Rate Promotions End

Phillip Dampier May 17, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Video 1 Comment

Some Spectrum customers are getting nasty surprises in their latest cable bills.

For some customers, it has been one year or more since Spectrum introduced new plans and pricing for former Bright House Networks and Time Warner Cable customers and one year since the company implemented all-digital cable television upgrades that require customers to place equipment on every television wired for cable in the home.

Many customers received “free” equipment as part of the digital upgrades, but may have forgotten that promotion only lasted one year. That is also the length of Spectrum’s various ‘new customer’ and ‘retention’ promotions. When the year is up, your bill goes up — sometimes dramatically.

In Cleveland, Ohio some customers are finding bills increasing $18-30 a month or more, sometimes increasing more than once as rate promotions and free set-top equipment deals end at different times in the year.

It is not unusual to find customers paying $180-225 or more a month for Spectrum’s “triple play” package of television, phone, and internet service, after promotions end. A significant percentage of customers still holding legacy Time Warner Cable and Bright House plans are finding those packages increasing in price as well. In comparison, new customers with a triple play package generally pay between $100-120 a month, depending on equipment.

Some of the rate changes Spectrum imposed over the last 12 months include:

  • Equipment rate increases (usually around $1.00 a month per box)
  • New “Secure Connection Fee”: $1.00/mo per box – Spectrum claims this fee covers “those measures Spectrum employs to manage and secure the connection between Spectrum’s system and the Spectrum receiver and other devices Subscriber uses to access Spectrum’s services.”
  • Broadcast TV Surcharge rate increases
  • Internet service rate increases

Although Spectrum has reportedly become more amenable to offering retention deals to customers threatening to leave, the best deals are still for new customers. Some have dropped Spectrum service and signed up again under the name of another household member to secure a better deal. Others will have to wait 30 days after ending service before one is qualified for a new customer deal once again.

WKYC in Cleveland reports some Spectrum customers are upset about sudden bill changes. (2:34)

San Jose Leverages Light Pole Small Cell Deal With AT&T; $1M for Low Income Internet Access

Small cell antenna

San Jose, Calif., officials announced Monday they have reached a tentative deal with AT&T to permit small cell technology on up to 750 city-owned light poles that could pave the way for future 5G wireless rollouts.

Mayor Sam Liccardo, a former member (and critic) of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Council, told residents he would leverage light pole agreements with wireless companies in return for money that can be spent addressing San Jose’s digital divide, starting with affordable internet access for the poor.

The non exclusive 15-year agreement will allow AT&T to bolster its FirstNet first responder network and offer leased access to light poles for $1,500 per pole per year. AT&T plans to initially place around 170 small cell antennas on light poles beginning later this year that can provide enhanced wireless data speeds and improved cell coverage in the city. The first deployment will not include 5G antennas. The deal still faces approval by San Jose’s city council at a May 1 meeting.

The deal is a victory for Mayor Liccardo, who opposed a wireless industry-written bill that was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown late in 2017. That bill would have capped pole attachment lease fees at $250 a year, hampering the mayor’s Smart City Vision initiative introduced two years earlier, with a goal of providing affordable internet access for local residents. Had the wireless industry’s bill become law, the city government would have had to find funds for the mayor’s initiative elsewhere.

Liccardo predicted the deal with AT&T will generate up to $5 million in lease fees, with a $1 million advance from AT&T the city intends to use to launch its low income digital initiatives. Few specifics about the mayor’s affordable internet access program were available at press time.

San Jose’s approach is considerably different from that of the states of Texas and Tennessee — both passing new state laws limiting pole attachment lease fees and reducing local control over small cell placement. Mayor Liccardo wants AT&T to share part of its anticipated new revenue from small cell technology to help poorer residents get access to the internet, while Texas and Tennessee hope that deregulation and limited fees and bureaucracy will strengthen the business case for more rapid expansion of small cell networks in both states.

KGO-TV in San Francisco reports on San Jose’s recent agreement with AT&T to deploy small cells on city-owned light poles. (1:47)

The Great 5G Giveaway: Cities and States Race to Let Big Wireless Deploy 5G on the Cheap

In 2017, negotiations between the city of McAllen, Tex. and wireless companies over the cost of placing new wireless infrastructure neared agreement at $1,500 per network node, an amount not out of line with the kind of infrastructure fees being charged in other cities where utilities want to place their equipment in the public rights-of-way. But just before contracts were ready to sign, the wireless companies broke off negotiations with city officials and began lobbying for a new Texas state law that would set the terms and conditions for placing telecommunications infrastructure statewide regardless of the wishes of individual Texas towns and cities.

SB 1004 was the kind of bill companies like AT&T love. Drafted from talking points supplied by the telecom industry and introduced by a friendly legislator — Republican State Sen. Kelly Hancock, (dubbed “THE WORST” by Texas Monthly magazine) — AT&T and Hancock partnered up to push the legislation through the state legislature, with the help of more than 100 lobbyists working with a budget of $7.8 million, according to a Texas Monitor analysis.

AT&T counts Texas as its corporate home, and company spends lavishly to have its way. It has been the largest lobbying force in the state by far for at least two decades, with 108 registered lobbyists. In second place is TXU Energy Retail, which registered just 29 lobbyists. AT&T offers politicians in the states where it provides local phone service a continuous fountain of campaign contributions. Since 2007, AT&T has spent more than $2.2 million on Texas politicians alone. AT&T donated to 175 of the 181 members of the Texas House and Senate, and its legislative achievements are impressive, winning passage of 14 of the 28 bills the company supported or wrote. Hancock counts AT&T among his top corporate donors, along with the former Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

SB 1004 will cost Texas communities a substantial amount of local control over wireless infrastructure, along with millions of dollars in pole attachment and oversight fees. Hancock, who has no background in telecommunications, arbitrarily set fee caps on wireless facilities at $20 a year for locating equipment on an existing pole and $250 a year if a company attaches equipment on something else. To observers, it isn’t just a bargain for the wireless industry, it could also means some towns and cities could be forced to spend public tax dollars to manage and monitor wireless company infrastructure should something goes awry.

McAllen is among 31 cities in Texas fighting to overturn AT&T’s state law. The city is upset because SB 1004 strips its authority to manage public rights-of-way. By bending over backwards to the wireless industry, companies can put 5G small cells and other equipment just about anywhere with little recourse. In fact, the Texas law mandates companies use pre-existing street signs, traffic garages, and street/traffic lighting as antenna locations wherever possible, which is good news for AT&T but could cause visual pollution and potential safety issues for residents. With below-market attachment fees topping out at just $250, four major national wireless companies can sprout antennas all over town, whether they create eyesores or not.

Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League, called that an “unconstitutionally low amount of money.”

“It’s mandatory that when private companies want to make a profit using public land that they pay a reasonable rental fee for it,” Sandlin told the Texas Monitor. “Just like if AT&T wanted to run these facilities through our backyard, we wouldn’t let them do it for free.”

Sandlin adds the wireless industry wants to be given special privileges under the guise of expanding internet access in return for getting cheap access to public rights-of-way, but they don’t want to be regulated like a public utility.

If the new law stands, it is estimated that Texas cities will lose up to $800 million a year in revenue from fees — money that will probably be made up by increasing taxes or other fees.

In Tennessee, the state has gone all out to hurry the passage of a similar law in hopes of convincing wireless companies to make the state one of the first targets for 5G expansion.

Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro), believes clearing a path for rapid 5G deployment will attract billions of dollars of new investment in the state.

“It’s going to transform the world as we currently know it. We’re expecting speeds anywhere from 30 to 50 percent faster as far as connectivity is concerned,” Ketron told his colleagues in the Tennessee legislature. “It opens up that bandwidth for all the data, everything that we’re doing from texting to telemedicine to even autonomous vehicles.”

House Bill 2279 and its companion SB 2504 are written almost word for word on the recommendations of AT&T and other wireless lobbyists. Like a Christmas tree decorated with ornaments, all of AT&T’s legislative priorities can be found in both bills, and not by accident. The phone company’s lobbyists have worked hand in hand with other internet providers, lawmakers, and local governments and co-ops to push the bill for rapid passage. After four months, it is nearing the governor’s signature.

The handful of critics, mostly Democrats, have been reduced to offering concern about the bill’s impact on local self-governance. Sen. Lee Harris (D-Shelby County) told colleagues, “I’m inclined to support this bill, but it does give me pause that we would intervene in these negotiations and set a price,” referring to the bill’s capped application fee of $100 per small cell installation, with a $35 annual renewal fee.

Ketron has frequently defended the bill’s cap on fees, which most observers claim are substantially lower than what wireless companies expected to pay, by claiming he wanted to prevent cities and towns from “cashing in on poles because that would be passed on to all the users through their rate fees, and I know my bill is already high enough.”

Sen. Ketron moving HB 2279 forward in the Tennessee legislature on April 11, 2018.

The potential revenue hit to municipalities would normally be enough to rally opposition, but because of AT&T’s lobbying efforts, most cities and counties in Tennessee have remained neutral on the bill, signaling a virtual guarantee it will become law. The company has worked hard to try to reassure communities the new law will be revenue neutral and be sensitive to the aesthetic needs of local communities. The bill promises that in the event a small cell damages or brings down a pole, the owner of the equipment will be responsible to fix the damage or provide an identical replacement light or pole at the company’s expense.

But based on stories from other communities that have gotten small cell technology for existing 4G LTE networks, problems remain. The biggest issue for residents is visual clutter on poles in their front yards. Some companies also install “lawn refrigerator” cabinets that house backup batteries or other equipment to keep small cells operational in the event of a power outage. Residents frequently complain about these unsightly metal boxes that can appear overnight in the public right-of-way, sometimes right in front of their home, with no warning.

Some town engineers also question the safety of some installations, particularly if multiple carriers seek to place equipment on the same poles. Some have expressed concern about what impact the extra equipment might have in a vehicle collision that brings a pole down onto another vehicle. There are also broader implications once a town surrenders authority over its public rights-of-way to state officials.

Ketron’s personal knowledge of 5G technology and his credibility to deliver on the promises and claims he has made to his colleagues is also open to question. During a brief floor session to consider House Bill 2279, Ketron frequently became tongue-twisted explaining the merits of 5G networks, their functionality, and what benefits they will offer rural Tennessee consumers.

In rambling introductory remarks, Ketron claimed, “the connectivity speed through that bandwidth what 5G brings us […] all are going to be communicating through all that bandwidth of that data.” He also promised a colleague in rural Tennessee that 5G service had a real potential to solve the state’s rural broadband problems, despite the fact the technology would be very costly to deploy in rural areas because of required fiber backhaul and the limited range of each small cell.

The Tennessee Electric Cooperative believes 5G deployment will likely stop with the suburbs, unlikely to expand into rural areas because of its limited range.

“Because of this, we don’t anticipate it will ever see widespread use outside of densely populated areas,” Trent Scott, spokesman for the organization told the Memphis Daily News. “The economics of deploying current 5G technology in sparsely populated areas are going to be a challenge.”

But the idea of AT&T and other wireless companies spending billions on new wireless infrastructure in Tennessee attracts political support for the short-term jobs for installers. The future of 5G technology and its use with Tennessee’s smart grid and intelligent transportation projects of the future may explain why the bill has attracted 40 co-sponsors.

But on the local level in communities like McAllen, there is also recognition wireless companies stand to earn tens of billions from the next generation of wireless technology, and they will be able to earn that revenue at a relatively cheap cost if communities surrender their ability to leverage their publicly owned assets like rights of way. McAllen officials hoped to negotiate a new network of public hotspots to help bring internet access to those who cannot afford traditional internet subscriptions. If AT&T agreed, the city was willing to steeply discount their fees. But no companies showed any interest in the idea. With enthusiastic state legislators willing to introduce legislation tailor-made for those companies, they didn’t have to.

The Tennessee legislature debated passage of the state’s 5G-related legislation for just 15 minutes before passing it 32-1. But did members truly understand it? (14:44)

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  • Paul Houle: I can believe in AT&T's plan, but not Comcast. For better or worse, AT&T is going "all in" on video and is unlike other major providers in ...
  • Phillip Dampier: Yes, that battle with Northwest Broadcasting, which also involved stations in Idaho-Wyoming and California, was the nastiest in recent history, with s...
  • Doug Stoffa: Digital takes up way less space than old analog feeds - agreed. In a given 6 MHz block, the cable company can send down 1 NTSC analog station, 2-4 HD...
  • Phillip Dampier: Digital video TV channels occupy next to nothing as far as bandwidth goes. Just look at the huge number of premium international channels loading up o...
  • Doug Stoffa: It's a bit more complicated than that. Television stations (and the networks that provide them programming) have increased their retransmission fees ...
  • Alex sandro: Most of the companies offer their services with contracts but Spectrum cable company offer contract free offers for initial year which is a very good ...
  • John: I live in of the effected counties, believe it or not our village is twenty three miles from WSKG Tower, approxiamately eighty miles from Syracuse, WS...
  • Wilhelm: I'm in the Finger Lakes where Spectrum removed WROC-8 last Fall, but we still get other Rochester channels, WHAM-13, WHEC-10 and WXXI-21. I have to wo...
  • dhkjsalhf: "Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments." I don't know whether this was sarcastic or not, but I feel it's a sentiment...
  • New Yorker: It makes no sense. I wonder sometimes if raising the limits on how much money rich people giving to candidates could make it more expensive to buy of...
  • New Yorker: Will New York go through with the threat? As an upstater I have seen infrastructure projects drag on in cost and time (eg. 1.5 yrs to repair a tiny b...
  • Matthew H Mosher: Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments....

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