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Opponent of EPB Fiber Expansion: Get ‘Innovative’ Satellite Internet Instead

Cleveland's monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

Cleveland’s monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

AT&T, Comcast, and Charter have surrounded the city of Cleveland, Tenn., (population 42,774) for more than 20 years, yet after all that time, there are still many homes in the area that have no better than dial-up Internet access..

An effort to extend municipal utility EPB’s fiber to the home service into the community just northeast of Chattanooga on Interstate 75, has run into organized political opposition campaign, part-sponsored by two of the three communications companies serving the area.

Tennessee state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland-area Republicans, understand the implications. With AT&T, Comcast, and Charter resolute about not expanding their coverage areas anytime soon, the only chance Cleveland has of winning world-class broadband anytime in the reasonable future is through EPB, which has already offered to extend service to at least 1,000 customers in rural Bradley County in as little as three months. Most of those customers now rely on dial-up Internet services, because no broadband is available. Reps. Howell and Brooks are trying to get the the red tape out of the way so EPB can proceed, but the Tennessee legislature hasn’t budged.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

There is a substantial difference between 30kbps dial-up and 100Mbps — one of the “budget” Internet tiers available from EPB. But some Tennessee lawmakers and corporate-backed special interest groups don’t care. To them, stopping public broadband expansion is a bigger priority, and they have attempted to stall, block, or prohibit municipal broadband, just to protect the current phone and cable companies that are among their generous contributors.

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first in America to enjoy gigabit residential broadband speed not because of AT&T, Comcast, or Charter, but because of the publicly owned electric company, EPB. So what’s the problem with that? The fact EPB spent $320 million on the fiber optic network — about $100 million of that coming from a federal grant — keeps some conservatives, corporate executives, and telecom shareholders up at night. They object to the public funding of broadband, calling it unfair competition for the two incumbent cable companies and one phone company, which have their own “privately funded” networks.

Republican Rep. Mike Carter, who serves Ooltewah, thinks that’s a lot of nonsense. He notes AT&T and other providers already receive government funding to service outlying areas that no other providers dare to tread for a lack of return on their investment.

cleveland_tn“[What] convinces me to back expansion of the EPB of Chattanooga is the fact that they received $111 million in stimulus funds, and in the next five years AT&T alone will receive $156 million of your money [in government funding] assessed every month on your bill to provide 10/4-gigabit service in those areas,” Carter explained to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “If the EPB’s $111 million matching grant somehow disqualifies those benefits going to my constituents, how do I explain to them that AT&T is receiving non-matching funds?”

“The issue then became, if it is necessary to create the world’s fastest Internet system, why would EPB not offer that for economic growth in its service area?” Carter continued. ” After I heard the story of the [gig’s] creation and realized that the money had already been spent, I asked myself if I would allow a firmly held principle of no competition with private enterprise by government to deny my constituents and neighbors the incredible benefits.”

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is dismissive of Carter’s willingness to bend his principles. In his view, those without Internet access have other options instead of getting EPB Fiber on the public dime.

Owen

Owen

“You can get satellite Internet,” said Owen, who added that governments that invest in fiber technology could be “left behind by disruptive innovation,” which in his mind could be satellite Internet. Satellite customers would disagree.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, and more horrible,” wrote Trey from another Cleveland — this time in Texas. “Speeds are consistently less than 2Mbps and they advertise up to 12. Try a cell phone booster and use that before resorting to satellite Internet.”

Hundreds of customers shared similar stories about their experience with satellite Internet, and they don’t believe it will be disruptive to anything except their bank account.

Owen and his group have not revealed many details about where its funding comes from, but the group is a member of the State Policy Network, which receives financial support from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Comcast. The group’s former leader, Drew Johnson, was also a former opinion page columnist at the Times-Free Press and used column space to criticize EPB and other issues that ran contrary to AT&T’s agenda in Tennessee.

Despite support from the Chattanooga area’s Republican delegation, many legislators from outside the area remain firmly in support of the telecom companies and their wish to limit or destroy community broadband projects like EPB, claiming they are redundant or are based on faulty business plans likely to fail. But while Comcast used to dismiss EPB’s gigabit service as unnecessary and AT&T considered gigabit speeds overkill, both companies are now racing to deploy their own gigabit networks in Chattanooga to compete.

The residents of Cleveland without broadband today probably won’t have it tomorrow or anytime soon. Many are hoping the Tennessee legislature will relent and let EPB solve their broadband issues once and for all. Cleveland resident Aaron Alldaffer is trying to help gin up interest in a renewed legislative push for EPB Fiber expansion with a Change.org petition.

The BBC World Service Global Business program visited Chattanooga in May 2016 to explore EPB Fiber and discuss its implications. (29 minutes)

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FairPoint’s ‘Moosepoop’: Abdicating Its Responsibilities One Customer at a Time

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint's deregulation logic "moosepoop."

Phillip Dampier: One customer calls FairPoint’s deregulation logic “moosepoop.”

In 2007, Verizon Communications announced it was selling its landline telephone network in Northern New England to FairPoint Communications, a North Carolina-based independent telephone company. Now, nearly a decade (and one bankruptcy) later, FairPoint wants to back out of its commitments.

In 2015, FairPoint stepped up its push for deregulation, writing its own draft legislative bills that would gradually end its obligation to serve as a “carrier of last resort,” which guarantees phone service to any customer that wants it.

The company’s lobbyists produced the self-written LD 1302, introduced last year in Maine with the ironic name: “An Act To Increase Competition and Ensure a Robust Information and Telecommunications Market.” The bill is a gift to FairPoint, allowing it to abdicate responsibilities telephone companies have adhered to for over 100 years:

  • The bill removes the requirement that FairPoint maintain uninterrupted voice service during a power failure, either through battery backup or electric current;
  • Guarantees FairPoint not be required to offer provider of last resort service without its express consent, eliminating Universal Service requirements;
  • Eliminates a requirement FairPoint offer service in any area where another provider also claims coverage of at least 94% of households;
  • Eventually forbids the Public Utilities Commission from requiring contributions to the state Universal Service Fund and forbids the PUC from spending that money to subsidize rural telephone rates.

opinionSuch legislation strips consumers of any assumption they can get affordable, high quality landline service and would allow FairPoint to mothball significant segments of its network (and the customers that depend on it), telling the disconnected to use a cell phone provider instead.

FairPoint claims this is necessary to establish a more level playing ground to compete with other telecom service providers that do not have legacy obligations to fulfill. But that attitude represents “race to the bottom” thinking from a company that fully understood the implications of buying Verizon’s landline networks in a region where some customers were already dropping basic service in favor of their cell phones.

FairPoint apparently still saw value spending $2.4 billion on a network it now seems ready to partly abandon or dismantle. We suspect the “value” FairPoint saw was a comfortable duopoly in urban areas, a monopoly in most rural ones. When it botched the conversion from Verizon to itself, customers fled to the competition, dimming its prospects. The company soon declared bankruptcy reorganization, emerged from it, and is now seeking a legislative/regulatory bailout too. Regulators should say no.

fairpointLast week, even FairPoint’s CEO Paul Sunu appeared to undercut his company’s own arguments for the need of such legislation, just as the company renewed its efforts in Portland to get a new 2016 version of the deregulation bill through the Maine legislature.

“We’ve operated in and we have experience operating basically in duopolies for a long time,” Sunu told investors in last week’s quarterly results conference call. “Cable is a formidable competitor. Look, they offer a nice package and a bundle and they – in certain areas, they certainly have a speed advantage. So we recognize that and so our marketing team does a really good job of making sure that our packages are competitive and we can counter punch on a both aggregate and deconstructive pricing.”

“Our aim is not to be a low cost, per se,” Sununu added. “What we want to do is to make sure that people stay with us because we can provide a better service and a better experience and that’s really what we aim to do. And as a result, we think that we will be able to change the perception that people have of Fairpoint and our brand and be able to keep our customers with us longer.”

Paul H. Sunu

Paul H. Sunu

Of course customers may not have the option to stay if FairPoint gets its deregulation agenda through and are later left unilaterally disconnected. In fact, while Sunu argues FairPoint’s biggest marketing plus is that it can provide better service, its agenda seems to represent the opposite. AARP representatives argued seniors want and need reliable and affordable landline service. FairPoint’s proposal would eliminate assurances that such phone lines will still be there and work even when the power goes out.

At least this year, customers know if they are being targeted. FairPoint is proposing to immediately remove from “provider of last resort service” coverage in Maine from Bangor, Lewiston, Portland, South Portland, Auburn, Biddeford, Sanford, Brunswick, Scarborough, Saco, Augusta, Westbrook, Windham, Gorham, Waterville, Kennebunk, Standish, Kittery, Brewer, Cape Elizabeth, Old Orchard Beach, Yarmouth, Bath, Freeport and Belfast.

At least 10,000 customers could be affected almost immediately if the bill passes. Customers in those areas would not lose service under the plan, but prices would no longer be set by state regulators and the company could deny new connection requests.

FairPoint argues that customers disappointed by the effects of deregulation can simply switch providers.

fairpoint failure“The market determines the service quality criteria of importance to customers and the service quality levels they find acceptable,” Sarah Davis, the company’s senior director of government affairs, wrote. “To the extent service quality is deficient from the perspective of consumers, the competitive marketplace imposes its own serious penalties.”

Except FairPoint’s own CEO recognizes that marketplace is usually a duopoly, limiting customer options and the penalties to FairPoint.

Those customers still allowed to stay customers may or may not get good service from FairPoint. Another company proposal would make it hard to measure reliability by limiting the authority of state regulators to track and oversee service complaints.

Company critic and customer Mike Kiernan calls FairPoint’s legislative push “moosepoop.”

“FairPoint has been, from the outset, well aware of the issues here in New England, since they had to demonstrate that they were capable of coping with the conditions – market and otherwise – in their takeover bid from Verizon,” Kiernan writes. “Yet now we see where they are crying poverty (a poverty that they brought on themselves) by taking on the state concession that they are trying desperately to get out from under, and as soon as possible.”

Vermont Public Radio reports FairPoint wants to get rid of service quality obligations it has consistently failed to meet as part of a broad push for deregulation. (2:23)

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Kiernan argues FairPoint should be replaced with a solution New Englanders have been familiar with for over 200 years – a public co-op. He points to Eastern Maine Electrical Co-Op as an example of a publicly owned utility that works for its customers, not as a “corporate cheerleader.”

Despite lobbying efforts that suggest FairPoint is unnecessarily burdened by the requirements it inherited when it bought Verizon’s operations, FairPoint reported a net profit of $90 million dollars in fiscal 2015.

Arizona Voters Put Cable Lobbyist in Charge of Telecom Oversight Agency; Scandal Ensues

Susan Bitter Smith

Susan Bitter Smith

To say Susan Bitter Smith is beholden to Arizona’s cable industry would be an understatement.

In addition to purportedly representing the citizens of Arizona on regulated utility matters, Bitter Smith is one of the state’s most powerful cable industry lobbyists, earning a salary that consumes 40 percent of the annual budget of the Southwest Cable Communications Association, which represents most cable operators in Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Despite clear ties to the telecommunications industry Bitter Smith has no intention of ending, in 2012 she ran for the chair of the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) — the state body that oversees and regulates phone, cable, and power utilities. Unlike many other states that appoint commissioners, Arizona voters elect them to office. Giving voters a direct election is written into the state constitution, and was designed to limit potential corporate influence and favoritism. Unfortunately for voters, the 2012 election cycle preoccupied by a presidential race and a rare open Senate seat left the mainstream media little time or interest exploring the backgrounds of candidates for the telecom regulator.

Bitter Smith never exactly hid her business relationship with Arizona’s largest cable companies, notably Cox Communications, the cable operator that dominates Phoenix. But she routinely downplayed the obvious conflict of interest, claiming the ACC dealt with regulated utilities, and cable companies were mostly deregulated. The Arizona Republic offered few insights into Bitter Smith’s background, failing to disclose her lobbying connections in their voter recommendations. Instead, the newspaper wrote a single sentence about Bitter Smith’s campaign in its editorial endorsements for the 2012 election: “Bitter Smith enjoys a great reputation as a strong-willed partisan, which seems a difficult fit for the Corporation Commission, at least as compared with the competition.”

bitter smith campaignPartisanship was exactly what a lot of voters apparently wanted, however, because the vote swung decidedly Republican in large parts of Arizona in the 2012 election. The turnout in Maricopa County, the largest in Arizona, was strongly anti-Obama and voters seemed content voting the party line down the ballot. Incumbents like Democrat Paul Newman did not exactly win an endorsement from the Republic either. The newspaper called him a “fierce and provocative partisan.”

“It is difficult to fathom work getting done at the commission with a microphone anywhere within Newman’s reach,” the newspaper added. The other Democratic incumbent, Susan Kennedy, was dismissed as an on-the-job trainee by the newspaper.

Broadband Issues Overshadowed by Arizona’s Solar Energy Debate

For most in Arizona, the 2012 election at the ACC was much more about energy issues than high cable bills and dreadful broadband. That year, investment in solar energy was the hot topic and it made the election of business-friendly candidates a high priority for the existing power-generating utilities and their friends at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Both could claim a major victory if a state ready-made for solar renewable energy turned its back for the sake of incumbent fossil fuel power generators.

alec-logo-smBitter Smith was never a member of ALEC, not having been a state legislator, but many of her fellow Republicans serving on the ACC were, and some were not shy claiming the Obama Administration’s pro-solar energy policies were “reckless and dangerous.” ALEC and utility companies oppose requirements that mandate the purchase of excess power generated from solar and wind customers at market rates and also want to introduce surcharges for customers relying on solar energy. Their fear: if a large percentage of sun-rich Arizonans installed solar panels, revenue for the investor-owned utilities could plummet.

Against that backdrop, Bitter Smith’s close relationship with Cox Cable went unnoticed while the media focused their attention on incumbent Republican commissioner Bob Stump – dubbed by some “Trash Burner Bob” for successfully pushing approval of a permit for a 13 megawatt trash burning plant in West Phoenix. Despite a reputation for pollution, Stump sold trash burning as a better renewable energy source for Arizona than solar energy. Waste hauling companies were delighted. The campaign met with less opposition than some expected, in part because anonymous voting guides turned up conflating solar panels as fire hazards that were difficult to extinguish, exposed users to dangerous chemicals, and constituted a hazard to firefighters whose ‘neurons may be blocked‘ when they approached solar panel fires, allegedly caused by electricity inside the panel.

Trash Burning Bob Stump

“Trash Burner Bob” Stump

Newcomer Robert Burns also won his election to the ACC that same year. His time at the Commission has also been rocky. This year, he faces an ethics complaint for remaining a registered lobbyist with the Arizona Telecommunications and Information Council, a group funded by the state’s largest telecom companies. After the complaint was filed, Burns claimed it was all a mistake. He later asked the group’s attorney to send a letter to the Arizona Secretary of State’s office requesting his lobbying connection be removed.

Some critics of the Commission have tolerated Burns’ alleged ethical lapse because he has demonstrated some independence from the energy companies he helps oversee.

Burns has argued the Arizona Public Service Company (APS) – a large investor-owned utility – must disclose how much it spent in campaign contributions and lobbying efforts to get its preferred candidates elected to the Corporation Commission. His demand for disclosure comes at the same time his fellow commissioner Stump is being investigated for exchanging text messages with APS officials during the 2014 election. Critics suggest he may have been illegally coordinating the campaigns of two of his closest allies — Tommy Forese and Doug Little. Both won seats on the ACC that year and have maintained a strong alliance with Stump, much to the chagrin of good government bloggers, who frequently refer to all three collectively as “Tommy Little Stump.”

Steve Muratore, editor of the Arizona Eagletarian, calls all three “shameless,” as they tirelessly fight to stop any investigation that could force open APS’ books to reveal what money, if any, was spent to help get both into office.

Utility giant APS will approach the Arizona Corporation Commission to win a 400% rate hike on special fees for solar panel users.

Utility giant APS will approach the Arizona Corporation Commission to win a 400% rate hike on special fees for solar panel users.

Forese claims the regulator has no business examining APS’ books.

“Commissioners attempting to influence elections in their official capacity through this relationship [as a result of their constitutional authority] would exceed the bounds of their constitutional mandate over public service corporations,” Forese argues.

While the political soap operas play out, in 2013, APA delivered its first Commission-approved blow against solar power, winning permission to apply a surcharge averaging $5 a month for using solar panels to generate electricity. APC successfully argued solar customers cheat other utility ratepayers by not contributing enough to the utility’s fixed costs.

This year, APC is seeking a 400%+ rate increase, proposing a surcharge averaging $21 a month for using solar panels. Customers served by the Salt River Project in Tempe faced even more onerous charges from that utility — a $50 a month fee for using solar panels. The new fees have effectively stopped residential solar power expansion in that utility’s territory, with the approval of ACC commissioners.

Flying Under the Radar

In the context of these other controversies, Bitter Smith’s own apparent conflicts of interest have largely flown under the radar from 2012 until earlier this year. Federal cable deregulation laws limit the Arizona regulator’s oversight of cable companies like Cox, Cable One, and Comcast. That has given Bitter Smith a defense for serving as both a lobbyist and a regulator. Corporation-Commission-signShe claims she only lobbies for the cable television and broadband services sold by cable companies like Cox Communications and abstains from consideration of cases such as those involving Cox’s digital phone service, which is still subject to some regulatory scrutiny. Bitter Smith also claims it is easy to tell where the ethical line falls because companies like Cox run different aspects of its business under a variety of affiliated subsidiaries.

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich was not impressed with that explanation and last week filed a Petition for Special Action to remove Bitter Smith from office for violating the state’s conflict of interest statute.

“Arizonans deserve fair and impartial regulators,” said Brnovich. “We filed this case to protect the integrity of the Commission and to restore the faith of Arizona voters in the electoral process. Arizona law clearly prohibits a Commissioner from receiving substantial compensation from companies regulated by the Commission.”

On Sept. 2, the Attorney General’s Office (AGO) launched an investigation into Bitter Smith after receiving a formal complaint against her. The AGO investigation found Bitter Smith receives over $150,000 per year for her trade association work, on top of her $79,500 salary as a Commissioner.  Arizona State Statute 40-101 prohibits Commissioners from being employed by or holding an official relationship to companies regulated by the Commission. The law also prohibits Commissioners from having a financial interest in regulated companies. Section 40-101 promotes ethics in government and prevents conflicts of interest.

“This isn’t one of these instances where this was maybe somebody skating too close to a line, or maybe somebody that had gone into a grey area. I think the law is very clear on this case,” Brnovich said.

KJZZ in Phoenix began raising questions about Bitter Smith’s apparent conflicts of interest last summer and carried this special report on Aug. 24, 2015. (7:18)

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Bitter Smith’s Shadowy and Scrubbed “PR Firm”

More troubling for Bitter Smith’s case is the “public affairs firm” Technical Solutions, jointly run by Bitter Smith and her husband. A careful scrubbing of the firm’s website “disappeared” the detailed description of the firm’s lobbying services, which counted Bitter Smith’s presence on the Commission a major asset for would-be telecom company clients. Google’s cache resolved that dilemma. Among those taking advantage of Technical Solutions’ services are AT&T, the former wireless company Alltel, and most of the state’s largest cable operators. Bitter Smith also claimed expertise setting up astroturf “grassroots” campaigns advocating her clients’ agendas and interests, but hiding any corporate connection. She also promoted her ability to plant stories with the media for her paying clients.

This was scrubbed off the website

Scrubbed from the website, but retained by Google’s cache.

Reporters at KJZZ, a public radio station in Phoenix, have spent months following the fine line Bitter Smith has laid as a defense against conflict of interest charges.

Oopsy

Bitter Smith depends on cable and phone companies setting up different entities in name only to manage regulated and unregulated services. That means a cable company could approach the Commission under several different names, one for its phone, one for its television, and one for its broadband business. That distinction allows Bitter Smith to claim she is careful about conflicts of interest:

Bitter Smith said that, because the telecom entities are so separate, it’s OK to vote on telecom matters related to Cox, Suddenlink and other members at the commission. But she still tries not to.

“We thought about that, ‘Well, maybe just from the appearance sake it wouldn’t hurt,’” she said.

Since Bitter Smith took office in 2013, records show the commission has voted at least seven times on matters involving the telephone side of the cable association’s members.

She recused herself four of those times, such as last year when a tariff increase was approved for Cox.

But she didn’t recuse herself on three matters, which she said was accidental, including another tariff increase for Cox approved in 2013.

“Probably should have, just didn’t catch it,” she said.“It was on the consent agenda, I zoomed through.”

She also didn’t recuse herself in May from voting to rescind a $225,000-bond requirement for Mercury Voice & Data, an entity identified in public documents as doing business in Arizona as Suddenlink Communications. She said she missed that one accidentally as well.

“Suddenlink is my member, Mercury Voice & Data is not an entity that I’m familiar with,” Bitter Smith said. “If I had understood, I probably would have, you know, just for optics sake. There’s no legal reason I would need to do that but, had I understood that there was another entity that they now form with a new name, separate entity with a new name, I probably would have.”

Real News AZ talked with attorney Thomas Ryan about the ethics of serving as a Corporation Commissioner while also employed as a paid lobbyist working for the interests of the companies regulated by that Commission. (7:08)

Ryan

Ryan

Bitter Smith’s ‘oopsies‘ infuriate government watchdog and Arizona attorney Thomas Ryan, who has tangled with Arizona’s high-powered politicians before… and won.

“This will not go quietly in the night and whoever she retains will no doubt fight it tooth and nail,” Ryan said of Bitter Smith. “But the state of Arizona deserves a Corporation Commission that is not bought and paid for by the very people it’s supposed to regulate, the very industries it’s supposed to regulate.”

Ryan is particularly incensed that Bitter Smith’s apparent ethical lapses are costing Arizonans twice — taxpayers pay her nearly $80,000 salary as a Commissioner and the increasingly expensive cable and phone bills that grow as a result of some of the Commission’s pro-telecom decisions. But at least Bitter Smith is doing well, also collecting her six figure salary from the cable lobbying association she leads.

Pat Quinn, former director of the Residential Utility Consumer Office, or RUCO, which advocates for consumers at the ACC, isn’t moved by Bitter Smith’s fine line and he should know – he’s the former Arizona president of Qwest Communications (today CenturyLink).

Quinn said Bitter Smith’s explanation about the separateness of telecom entities from cable is making a “difference without a distinction.”

“While you may be able to, accounting wise, separate your expenses between what you put in phone and what you put in cable, how do you take out of your mind, ‘Oh, they’re paying me over here and we do good things for them over here, but I’m going to be fair and unbiased when I look at not only Cox on the phone side, but any of the other phone providers,’” Quinn told KJZZ.

How Bitter Smith helped kill rural community broadband in Arizona for the benefit of the state’s biggest cable companies. (6:43)

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Killing Community Broadband to Protect Arizona Cable Profits

The clearest cut evidence of Bitter Smith’s lobbying for Arizona cable companies while claiming to represent the public interest as a commissioner came in 2013, when Bitter Smith and Cox Communications lobbyist Susan Anable tried to pressure Galen Updike, a state employee tasked with mapping broadband availability in Arizona and advocating for solutions for the 80 percent of rural communities in the state that remain broadband-challenged to this day.

In February, Bitter Smith and Anable allegedly solicited the help of state employees to kill a state contract with GovNet, a firm that had previously received $39 million in federal dollars to bring broadband to rural Arizona.

govnet

Updike said Bitter Smith trashed GovNet’s reputation, claiming the provider walked away from earlier projects leaving them incomplete.

“‘There was a better alternative,'” Updike recalls Bitter Smith telling him. “‘You’ve got existing cable companies in the area that are having now to compete against these dollars that come in from the federal government. Can you help us get rid of GovNet’s contract?’ [was the request]. It took my breath away.”

COX_RES_RGBUpdike said Bitter Smith maintained a near-constant presence at their meetings, but she had no interest in solving Arizona’s rural broadband problems.

“The only reason for Bitter Smith to be there was to talk about telecommunications policy, broadband policy,” Updike said.

Updike’s efforts to make things better for broadband in rural Arizona met constant headwinds from Bitter Smith and lobbyists for the state’s cable and phone companies.

“All the broadband providers were cherry picking — going after the high easy places to put broadband into where there’s high concentration of population dollars,” Updike said. “And basically the low population areas, the rural areas of the state of Arizona, are sucking wind. They have no possibility for it.”

bearEfforts to develop the Arizona Strategic Broadband Plan were effectively sabotaged by the cable industry, especially Cox. Bitter Smith immediately objected to the contention the cable industry could collectively offer broadband to 96 percent of the state if it chose. She claimed that was invalid. She also criticized the proposal to begin a comprehensive broadband mapping program claiming it lacked proof it would be any real ongoing benefit to anyone.

At the center of the lobbying effort backed by Cox was an argument the state should not involve itself in expanding broadband networks. Instead, it should spend its funds promoting the broadband service already available from cable operators to those not yet signed up.

Things got much worse for Updike as Republicans cemented their grip on the Corporation Commission in 2013. Updike continued to voice concerns about Bitter Smith’s conflicts of interest and was eventually taken aside and told to be quiet about the issue.

“I was told to stop poking the bear. The bear was the combination of Cox, CenturyLink and Susan Bitter Smith,” Updike told the radio station.

By May 2013, the broadband planning council’s meetings began to be mysteriously canceled. No strategic broadband plan was ever adopted. That same month, Updike was told he no longer had a job at the Arizona Department of Administration.

Henry Goldberg, and independent consultant who helped draft the never-adopted state broadband plan has little to fear from Bitter Smith, so he was frank with KJZZ.

“To me when you stop discussions of the plan, disband this council, which is supposed to advise the governor on digital policy, there’s something inappropriate going on there. Something like this is critical for the citizens of Arizona.”

No Verizon Strike for Now, Says CWA Union; Workers Launch PR War on Company Instead

verigreedy”After considering all of our options, your leadership has decided not to go on strike at midnight tonight, even though we have not yet reached a contract agreement,” came word Sunday from Dennis Trainor, vice president for CWA District One, which represents Verizon workers in New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts.

Verizon’s workers will stay on the job for now, launching a new strategy that will include sharing information with customers about Verizon’s unwillingness to invest in FiOS fiber expansion and improved broadband and phone service. The PR war will extend not just to customers but also to the media, politicians, and regulators. The union’s message: “Verizon’s greed knows no bounds.”

“Despite $18 billion in profits over the last 18 months, and a quarter of a billion in compensation to its top executives over the last five years, this greedy corporation is still insisting on destroying our job security, forcing us to pay thousands of dollars more for our health care, and slashing our retirement security,” Trainor said in a bargaining update. “It’s a disgrace.”

“But we are not going to let our anger allow us to walk into a trap,” Trainor added. “It’s quite possible that Verizon is trying to provoke us into a long strike in order to try to break us. They have spent tens of millions of dollars preparing for a strike, training managers, hiring scabs and contractors, advertising against us on TV and radio. So your leadership has decided that if and when we strike, it will be on our terms, on our timing.”

Verizon's FiOS expansion is still dead.

Verizon’s FiOS expansion is still dead.

The union wants Verizon to expand FiOS throughout the company’s entire service area, not just a select few communities and wealthy suburbs. That’s a win for customers and for workers running fiber optic cables, installing and maintaining the service, according to the union. A series of radio ads from the CWA are running in New York and Pennsylvania telling customers “you just can’t trust Verizon” after the company failed to bring FiOS service across both states.

The CWA says the New York mayors of Albany, Syracuse, Kingston, Rome and Utica, as well as the town supervisor of Brookhaven, have joined the CWA in sharing their concerns Verizon has refused to build out its FiOS broadband and TV services across upstate New York, leaving customers with a neglected legacy copper network Verizon barely maintains.

Verizon spokesperson Rich Young attacked the CWA’s efforts to bring politicians looking for better broadband from Verizon into the negotiating process.

“The CWA owes these mayors an apology,” Young said. “These elected officials should be outraged that union leaders wasted their time attending a negotiating session today that had nothing to do with FiOS. Unfortunately, the mayors were seemingly misled to think FiOS deployment is an issue that’s being negotiated. It’s not. Sadly, it seems the mayors were just a ploy as part of this bargaining publicity gimmick.”

Sheil

Sheil

“I can assure you, none of these mayors were misled,” said Kevin Sheil, president of CWA Local 1103. “Does the company really believe that the mayor’s constituents need for reliable High Speed Internet so underprivileged children could have additional educational opportunities is a union gimmick, or do they just not give a shit about the consumers in their footprint.”

Union officials expressed concern about Verizon’s latest contract offer, which would allow the company to transfer employees to any Verizon service area, in or out-of-state, on short notice. The union also noticed Verizon is limiting job opportunities in rural service areas, which could be another clue Verizon is planning to eventually sell off much of its rural landline network to another company. Some utilities that have experience fighting over infrastructure issues like telephone poles believe all signs point to Verizon’s exit of the landline business to focus on more profitable wireless service instead.

Union officials admit they could be in for a long fight with Verizon before another contract is signed. The hostility is coming from both sides. Verizon took heat for creating what the CWA is calling a “spy app” it has distributed to non-union employees to document and report bad behavior by union workers if a strike occurs. The app records a photo and the time and exact place of any vandalism or intimidation non-union workers encounter, and asks the user to write a short incident report that will be sent to corporate security.

The Communications Workers of America is running this radio ad slamming Verizon’s lack of FiOS deployment in Pennsylvania. (0:30)

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“Verizon should stop focusing on clever new ways to fire people and start focusing on bargaining in good faith towards a contract that protects workers’  job security and standard of living, and ensures that every customer is getting the highest quality service,” said Bob Master, legislative and political director for CWA District One. “The company’s petty attempts to intimidate workers do not bring us any closer to a fair collective bargaining agreement.”

Amy Seifer, Verizon associate general counsel for labor and employment, told RCR Wireless News, “The app serves three primary purposes: the first is a means for our management employees to report or document an unsafe situation, unlawful act, or violation of our code of conduct, and it will also be used by managers who have been assigned into these union positions for the duration of the strike to ask questions about installations or repairs they are handling. It also provides a means for our employees to submit suggestions on process improvements.”

“The answers [they receive in response] will be wrong anyway,” countered Ed Mooney, vice president of CWA District 2-13 on a town hall conference call.

Seifer did admit the app’s primary purpose was to assist non-union workers taking over during a work stoppage.

“If we get reports of misconduct, our corporate security office will do a thorough investigation then determine a course of action whether that’s suspension, termination or no action at all will be based on the outcome of the investigation,” Seifer said.

“We will rally, engage in informational picketing, build political and regulatory pressure on the company, follow all the company rules to the letter, never take shortcuts, pressure company executives and members of the board of directors,” said Trainor. “We will be disciplined, militant and united. This was not an easy decision. But it is the smart decision. And if and when the time comes, we will strike the company on our terms.”

The Communications Workers of America is airing this radio ad across upstate New York, telling consumers they were bypassed for Verizon FiOS because of the company’s broken promises. (0:30)

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Uproar Over Eastlink’s 15GB Usage Limit Brings Call to Ban Data Caps in Rural Canada

EastlinkLogoA plan to place a 15GB monthly usage cap on Eastlink broadband service in rural Nova Scotia has led to calls to ban data caps, with a NDP Member of the Legislative Assembly of Nova Scotia leading the charge.

NDP MLA Sterling Belliveau is calling on the Liberal government to prohibit Eastlink from placing Internet data caps on rural broadband.

“This newly announced cap really sends us back to the 1990s when it comes to technology,” Belliveau said in a news release Tuesday. “The province paid $20 million to bring this service to rural communities, and as such, the Minister of Business needs to tell Eastlink this can’t stand.”

Belliveau’s office is being flooded with complaints from residents and business owners upset about Eastlink’s data cap, which includes a $2/GB overlimit fee, up to a maximum of $20.

“Only rural customers get penalized for using the Internet,” complained Angel Flanagan on Twitter. “We can’t have Netflix or YouTube. Eastlink, stop this cap and upgrade your services and give us better Internet. We don’t need to use it less.”

“I am so angry about the Internet capping,” said Emma Davis. “Eastlink you are out of your goddamn minds. Rural Nova Scotia is entering the Dark Ages.”

rural connect

Eastlink’s Rural Connect package is a wireless service, delivering speeds up to 1.5Mbps at a cost of $46.95 a month. The service is provided where wired providers are generally not available, including Annapolis, Hants, Digby, Yarmouth, Queens, Lunenburg, Shelburne and Kings counties. Eastlink says its new usage cap was designed to accommodate “intended usage like surfing the web, reading/sending emails, social media, e-commerce, accessing government services, etc. — and NOT video streaming, for which the service was not intended.”

Belliveau

Belliveau

Eastlink’s continued dependence on a low capacity wireless network platform has conflicted with the changing needs of Internet users, who increasingly use high bandwidth applications like streaming video that can quickly clog wireless ISP traffic.

When the service was designed, the popular video streaming service “Netflix was shipping DVDs by mail,” says Eastlink spokesperson Jill Laing.

The cap was implemented to “address Internet traffic, which we believe will help provide equal access to the service and deliver a better overall rural Internet experience for customers,” Laing wrote.

Eastlink says the average customer uses about 12GB of traffic, excluding video streaming. Setting a usage cap at 15GB should not be a problem for customers who stay off Netflix, argues the ISP.

“Those who are using the service as it was intended to be used should not be impacted by monthly usage,” she wrote.

The fact Eastlink labeled some traffic legitimate while video streaming was discouraged did not go over well with customers.

“Who made them Internet Gods when our provincial tax dollars helped finance their Internet project,” asks Al Fournier. “The very fact they would suggest a 15GB cap with a straight face in 2015 should be ringing alarm bells in Ottawa about the rural broadband crisis in Canada.”

nova scotiaFournier suspects Eastlink has not invested enough to keep up with a growing Internet because the service originally advertised itself as a way to listen to online music and watch video. But he also wonders if the data cap is an attempt to force the government to fund additional upgrades to get Eastlink to back down.

“This is why wireless ISPs suck for 21st century Internet,” Fournier argues. “They are incapable of keeping up with growing traffic and bandwidth needs and need to be retired in favor of fiber.”

But at least one wireless provider in Nova Scotia does not understand why Eastlink is making a fuss over data caps.

Cape Breton’s Seaside Wireless Communications offers Internet access in Antigonish, Cape Breton, Colchester, Cumberland, Guysborough, Inverness, Pictou, Richmond and Victoria counties, along with rural parts of Halifax County, and has no data caps.

“It is not even on our radar,” said Loran Tweedie, CEO of Seaside Wireless. “This is a differential we are proud of.”

Some Nova Scotians are also questioning why their Internet service is being capped while rural Eastlink customers in Newfoundland, Labrador and Ontario can continue to use the Internet cap-free, at least for now. Others are suspicious about the future of Eastlink’s maximum cap on overlimit fees, currently $20. Canadian providers have a history of raising the maximum cap, subjecting customers to greater fees.

“It’s hard to speak to what will happen over time. We’ll certainly evaluate where we’re at later in the fall,” said Laing.

Liberal provincial Business Minister Mark Furey said he was aware of Eastlink’s rural broadband data cap but only promised to monitor the situation for now.

Starting next month, Eastlink’s rural Internet packages will be capped at 15 gigabytes of usage per month. CBC Radio Nova Scotia’s “Information Morning” program speaks with Eastlink and Port Royal resident Gary Ewer about the impact the usage cap will have. (10:15)

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Empire Access Expands Fiber to the Home Service Across Western N.Y./Southern Tier

empireA Prattsburgh, N.Y. family-owned company has picked up where Verizon left off and is busily wiring up small communities across western New York and the Southern Tier with fiber to the home service, giving both Verizon and Time Warner Cable some competitive headaches.

Empire Access is concentrating its service in areas where Verizon FiOS will never go and Time Warner Cable maxes out at 50/5Mbps. The company recently launched service in downtown Batavia in Genesee County and will be launching serving in Big Flats later this year.

Empire promises no data caps or usage-based billing and offers 100/20Mbps at introductory prices ranging from between $45-65/mo. Gigabit broadband speed is also available.

Where it has franchise agreements with local communities, Empire also offers cable television packages ranging from $31.45-73.40, with up to 130 channels. The packages are not as comprehensive as those from Time Warner Cable, but customers may not mind losing a dozen or two niche cable channels to save up to $30 a month off what Time Warner charges. Nationwide home phone service is also an option.

Empire relies heavily on two public/non-profit fiber backbone networks to deliver service. The Southern Tier Network comprises a 235-mile long fiber backbone that runs through Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties. Further north, Axcess Ontario provides backbone connectivity across its 200+ mile fiber ring around Ontario County.

fiber backboneWith the help of public and non-profit broadband infrastructure, residents in small communities across a region extending from Sayre, Pa., north to Batavia, N.Y., will have another choice besides Verizon or Frontier DSL, Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Residents in some communities, like Hammondsport and Bath — south of Keuka Lake, love the fact they have a better choice than Time Warner Cable. Empire has reportedly signed up 70 percent of area businesses and has more than a 20% residential market share in both villages after a year doing business in the Finger Lakes communities.

Empire targets compact villages with a relatively affluent populations where no other fiber overbuilder is providing service. It doesn’t follow Google’s “fiberhood” approach where neighborhoods compete to be wired. Instead, it provides service across an entire village and then gradually expands to nearby towns from there.

Most western New York villages are already compact enough to attract the attention of cable companies, predominately Time Warner Cable, which has an effective broadband monopoly. Verizon and Frontier offer limited slowband DSL, but Verizon has stopped expanding the reach of its broadband service and will likely never bring FiOS fiber to the home service to any western N.Y. community outside of a handful of suburbs near Buffalo.

empire-access-truckThe arrival of Empire reminds some of the days when the first cable company arrived to wire their village. Word of mouth is often enough to attract new customers, but a handful of local sales agents are also on hand to handle customer signups. From there, one of the company’s 80+ employees in New York handle everything else.

Bryan Cummings, who shared the story of Empire Access with us, “is pretty stoked.”

“Bye, bye Time Warner Cable,” Cummings tells Stop the Cap!.

Time Warner has treated most of western New York about as well as its service areas in Ohio, often criticized for not keeping up with the times. With fiber overbuilders Empire Access in the Finger Lakes region and Southern Tier and Greenlight Networks in Rochester, the fastest Internet options are not coming from the local phone and cable company anymore.

WSKG in Binghamton explores fiber broadband developments in the Southern Tier of upstate New York. Empire Access is providing the fast fiber broadband Verizon, Frontier, and Time Warner Cable won’t. (3:54)

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At present, Empire Access provides service in:

  • Village of Arkport
  • City of Batavia
  • Village of Bath
  • Village of Canisteo
  • Village of Hammondsport
  • City of Hornell
  • Village of Montour Falls
  • Village of Naples
  • Village of North Hornell
  • Village of Watkins Glen
  • Village of Waverly (N.Y.)
  • Boroughs of Sayre, Athens, and South Waverly (Pa.)
  • Borough of Troy (Pa.)

Communities on Empire’s radar for future expansion include Urbana, Dansville, Wayland and Cohocton. Further out, there is some consideration of larger cities like Corning and Elmira, as well as other towns in far northern Pennsylvania. With Empire’s expansion into Naples, the company also has many options in affluent and growing communities in Ontario County, south of Rochester.

FairPoint CEO Hints the Company is For Sale; Analysts Suspect Frontier Would Be the Logical Buyer

Phillip Dampier May 13, 2015 Audio, Competition, Consumer News, FairPoint, Frontier 2 Comments

fairpoint4Frontier Communications, just hours after passing its first hurdle  — from the Federal Trade Commission — to go ahead with its proposed $10.54 billion acquisition of Verizon’s wireline assets in California, Florida and Texas, is already being discussed as the most likely buyer of FairPoint Communications, which serves former Verizon customers in the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Wall Street is turning up the pressure on FairPoint to sell its money-losing operation to a larger company that could use economy of scale to rescue a business that has already declared bankruptcy once and lost over $136 million last year. FairPoint also recently settled an ongoing dispute with its unionized workforce which makes the company a more likely takeover target.

FairPoint CEO Paul Sunu put out the for-sale sign during last week’s first quarter earnings conference call, admitting to investors FairPoint is considering mergers and acquisitions as a seller or buyer as part of the company’s overall strategy.

Barry Sine, a telecom analyst with Drexel Hamilton, said the company’s 18,000 mile fiber optic network across the three states it serves is the crown jewel of FairPoint and would be a valuable addition to a larger phone company’s portfolio. FairPoint continues to rapidly lose residential customers as they switch to cellular phones, cable company phone service, or broadband-powered Voice over IP services like Ooma. But FairPoint is picking up customers in the commercial sector, including wireless carriers seeking cell tower backhaul connections, hospitals, and other institutions using FairPoint’s fiber network.

Frontier, headquartered in Stamford, Conn., already has substantial assets in the northeast, including AT&T’s former service area in Connecticut. Picking up northern New England would not be much of a challenge for a company already serving 28 states with more than 17,000 employees and could soon pick up millions of new customers in the south.

Vermont Public Radio reports troubled FairPoint Communications, which serves customers in northern New England originally serviced by Verizon, is likely up for sale and could be acquired by a company like Frontier Communications by 2017. (2:54)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

frontier frankWith Frontier’s attention currently occupied by its latest Verizon transaction, analysts do not expect to see a deal with FairPoint struck before 2017. That could allow Frontier’s rivals — CenturyLink and Windstream to approach FairPoint first. But neither of those two companies have recently been active acquiring new landline service areas.

Many of FairPoint’s largest shareholders purchased defaulted bonds when FairPoint went bankrupt, and hope to rack up a substantial return when FairPoint is sold to a larger company.

Frontier has a better record of working well with unionized workers than FairPoint, so it was no surprise the unions representing FairPoint workers are not upset with the news the company could be sold.

A spokesman for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Vermont told Vermont Public Radio the union is aware of speculation about a future sale of the company and would welcome the opportunity to be a partner with “a more successful business” than FairPoint.

Commentary: Verizon’s New Tech News Website Censors Out Net Neutrality, Electronic Spying, Credibility

“Verizon’s treatment of the news is a testament to the need for strong Net Neutrality protections.”

Sugarstring's logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Sugarstring’s logo is as twisty as its editorial policies.

Verizon Wireless’ launch of Sugarstring, a high-budget tech news website targeting millennial 20-somethings with tech and lifestyle news they can use seemed innocent enough until its editor revealed in a private e-mail Verizon considers reporting on electronic spying and Net Neutrality issues “verboten.

Verizon is deeply embroiled in both issues and evidently has no interest spending money enlightening the masses, so it has told its staff (but not you) both topics are forbidden.

The Daily Dot reported the revelation straight from Cole Stryker, Sugarstring’s editor.

“I’ve been hired to edit SugarString.com,” writes Stryker in a recruiting email to Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill. “Downside is there are two verboten topics (spying and net neutrality), but I’ve been given wide berth to cover pretty much all other topics that touch tech in some way.”

Verizon’s cavalier censorship policies say a lot about the company’s interest in controlling the messages that people see and read online. The news site is intended to be a high-profile destination for Verizon Wireless’ mobile customers and will logically get significant exposure from the company bankrolling it.

Verizon might argue that since it pays the bills, it has a right to decide what information should pass through its websites. It is hardly a big stretch for them to argue that if they own the wires over which you receive Internet service, they should have a say in what travels across those as well.

Censorship need not be crude and obvious as it often was on foreign propaganda broadcasts during the Cold War. Today’s “news management” is much more subtle and more insidious.

Take RT (formerly Russia Today), the Moscow-based 24/7 English-language news network. Although dropped by many major cable systems including Time Warner Cable after Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, the network is still growing and finding more places on the air around the world.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

Radio Moscow during the Cold War represented a more overt form of propaganda. Corporations like Verizon have learned to be more subtle.

RT is nothing like what shortwave listeners used to endure from English-language Radio Moscow World Service during the Communist years. You couldn’t miss that station. Broadcasting on up to 47 frequencies simultaneously, 24 hours a day, it was easily the most commonly encountered signal on the shortwave dial. Plodding features like, “On the Occasion of the 45th Anniversary of the Stunning Achievements of World Socialism,” or “The Voices of Soviet Public Opinion Demand Peace and Progress for the Non-Aligned World” (Part 36) were everything you might expect and less.

Radio Moscow boldly told listeners in its series, “The History of the Soviet Union, the Socialist Revolution, and Its Aims and Results,” that elections in the USSR were superior to those in other countries because the government took the money out of politics. Only by putting national infrastructure entirely in the hands of the people, along with public ownership of the means of production, can a nation achieve true democracy. They didn’t bother to mention the USSR was a one-party state, which made elections pro-forma, or that the entire Soviet economy was a basket case since the days of Leonid Brezhnev. (10:01) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Radio Moscow has been replaced by RT Television, which in the post-Soviet era now exists primarily to boost all-things Putin. The propaganda has been sharpened up by employing U.S. reporters and moving to the far more subtle practice of “self-censorship.” A former RT reporter fed up with increasingly strident propaganda over the matter of Russia, Crimea and the Ukraine quit live on the air. In a later interview on CNN, Liz Wahl told Anderson Cooper that RT’s staff was made up mostly of impressionable young people eager to win favor from RT’s management. They quickly learned and accepted that certain points of view or story subjects were either frowned upon or outright verboten. Instead of being sent to a gulag for disobedience, those straying from Putin’s party line were taken off stories, reassigned to menial work, or shunned. Who wants that?

Avoiding certain topics or points of view at the behest of corporate management (or the state) is just as insidious as directly slanting the news to one’s favor. Few real journalists would accept a job (or stay) at a news organization that was compromised by coverage limits or editorial interference that came from conflict with a corporate or political agenda.

That Verizon chooses to ban stories that embarrass Verizon, such as Edward Snowden’s revelations that Verizon voluntarily provided the National Security Agency (NSA) the phone records of all of its customers and is still actively engaged in tracking its customers’ web activities, does not mean it is going to block you from visiting CNN.com tomorrow. That Verizon doesn’t want to fuel the public consciousness of Net Neutrality is understanding considering the company has paid its lawyers plenty to fight the principle in court, openly admitting it favors paid fast lanes for traffic. But Verizon is clearly on a road that, if unchecked, eventually leads to content and traffic manipulation.

Verizon steps far over the line of jounalistic integrity informing editors to avoid both issues while saying nothing to readers and it isn’t the first time Verizon has crossed the line.

censorshipTim Karr from Free Press reminds us Verizon has a very different view about the First Amendment that the rest of us:

In a 2012 legal brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Verizon mangled the intent of the First Amendment to claim that the Constitution gives the phone company the right to control everyone’s online information. In the brief, which was part of the company’s successful bid to overturn the FCC’s Open Internet Order — Verizon argued that the First Amendment gives it the right to serve as the Internet’s editor-in-chief. The company’s attorneys claimed that “broadband providers possess ‘editorial discretion.'” even when they are “transmitting the speech of others.”

Verizon continued in this vein, asserting that “Just as a newspaper is entitled to decide which content to publish and where, broadband providers may feature some content over others.” And that means that Verizon could privilege its SugarString version of the news over the content of real news sites, because the company believes it should be able to “give differential pricing or priority access” to its own content.

What Verizon cannot “manage,” it wants the right to censor:

When it comes to a question of customer freedom vs. profits, Verizon follows the money every time:

In 2011, Free Press and others caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon’s $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hotspots on their own. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

All of these examples challenge Verizon’s ongoing assertion it has no incentive to censor, block, or interfere with online content, making Net Neutrality unnecessary. You have just seen another example of why Net Neutrality is urgently needed. Verizon has demonstrated repeatedly it puts its own interests above its customers, so regulators should respond with a clear, unambiguous, and robustly enforced policy of Net Neutrality that protects the interests of you and I.

Netflix Aggravates Canada’s Identity Crisis: Protection of Canadian Culture or Big Telecom Company Profits?

Phillip Dampier September 29, 2014 Audio, Canada, Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, HissyFitWatch, Net Neutrality, Online Video, Public Policy & Gov't, Video Comments Off on Netflix Aggravates Canada’s Identity Crisis: Protection of Canadian Culture or Big Telecom Company Profits?

netflix caThe arrival of Netflix north of the American border has sparked a potential video revolution in Canada that some fear could renew “an erosion” of Canadian culture and self-identity as the streaming video service floods the country with American-made television and movies. But anxiety also prevails on the upper floors of some of Canada’s biggest telecom companies, worried their business models are about to be challenged like never before.

Two weeks ago, the country saw a remarkable Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing featuring a Netflix executive obviously not used to being grilled by the often-curt regulators. When it was all over, Netflix refused to comply with a CRTC order for information about Netflix’s Canadian customers.

Earlier today, the CRTC’s secretary general, John Traversy, declared that because of the lack of cooperation from Netflix, all of their testimony “will be removed from the public record of this proceeding on October 2, 2014.” That includes their oral arguments.

“As a result, the hearing panel will reach its conclusions based on the remaining evidence on the record. There are a variety of perspectives on the impact of Internet broadcasting in Canada, and the panel will rely on those that are on the public record to make its findings,” Mr. Traversy wrote in a nod to Canada’s own telecom companies.

Not since late 1990’s Heritage Minister Sheila Copps, who defended Canadian content with her support of a law that restricted foreign magazines from infiltrating across the border, had a government official seemed willing to take matters beyond the government’s own policy.

CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais threw down the gauntlet when Netflix hesitated about releasing its Canadian subscriber and Canadian content statistics to the regulator. Mr. Blais wanted to know exactly how many Canadians are Netflix subscribers and how much of what they are watching on the service originates in Canada.

With hearings underway in Ottawa, bigger questions are being raised about the CRTC’s authority in the digital age. Doug Dirks from CBC Radio’s The Homestretch talks with Michael Geist at the University of Ottawa. Sept. 19, 2014 (8:40) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Netflix has operated below regulatory radar since it first launched service in Canada four years ago. The CRTC left the American company with an impression it had the right to regulate Netflix, but chose not to at this time. The CRTC of 2010 was knee-deep in media consolidation issues and did not want to spend a lot of time on an American service that most Canadians watched by using proxy servers and virtual private networks to bypass geographic content restrictions. But now that an estimated 30% of English-speaking Canada subscribes to Netflix, it is threatening to turn the country’s cozy and well-consolidated media industry on its head.

Ask most of the corporate players involved and they will declare this is a fight about Canada’s identity. After all, broadcasters have been compelled for years to live under content laws that require a certain percentage of television and radio content to originate inside Canada. Without such regulations, enforced by the CRTC among others, Canada would be overwhelmed by all-things-Americans. Some believe that without protection, Canadian viewers will only watch and listen to American television and music at the cost of Canadian productions and artists.

Kevin O’Leary, Chairman, O’Leary Financial Group is furious with regulators for butting into Netflix’s online video business and threatening its presence in Canada is an effort to protect incumbent business models. From BNN-Canada. (8:45)

A viewer watches Netflix global public policy director Corie Wright testify before the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) in Ottawa (Image: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

A viewer watches Netflix’s Corie Wright testify before the CRTC. (Image: Sean Kilpatrick, The Canadian Press)

But behind the culture war is a question of money – billions of dollars in fact. Giant media companies like Rogers, Shaw, and Bell feel threatened by the presence of Netflix, which can take away viewers and change a media landscape that has not faced the kind of wholesale deregulation that has taken place in the United States since the Reagan Administration.

Before Netflix, the big Canadian networks didn’t object too strongly to the content regulations. After all, CRTC rules helped establish the Canadian Media Fund which partly pays for domestic TV and movie productions. Canada’s telephone and satellite companies also have to contribute, and they collectively added $266 million to the pot in 2013, mostly collected from their customers in the form of higher bills. Netflix doesn’t receive money from the fund and has indicated it doesn’t need or want the government’s help to create Canadian content.

“It is not in the interest of consumers to have new media subsidize old media or to have new entrants subsidize incumbents,” added Netflix’s Corie Wright. “Netflix believes that regulatory intervention online is unnecessary and could have consequences that are inconsistent with the interests of consumers,” Wright said, adding viewers should have the ability “to vote with their dollars and eyeballs to shape the media marketplace.”

That is not exactly what the CRTC wanted to hear, and Wright was off the Christmas card list for good when she directly rebuffed Mr. Blais’ requests for Netflix’s data on its Canadian customers. Wright implied the data would somehow make its way out of the CRTC’s offices and end up in the hands of the Canadian-owned broadcast and cable competitors that know many at the CRTC on a first name basis.

Does Netflix pose a threat to Canadian culture? Matt Galloway spoke with John Doyle, the Globe & Mail’s television critic, on the Sept. 22nd edition of CBC Radio’s Metro Morning show. Sept. 22, 2014 (8:31) You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Mr. Blais, obviously not used to requests being questioned, repeated demands for Netflix’s subscriber data to be turned over by the following Monday and if Netflix did not comply, he would revoke Netflix’s current exemption from Canadian content rules and bring down the hammer of regulation on the streaming service.

Blais

Blais

The deadline came and went and last week Netflix defiantly refused to comply with the CRTC’s order. A Netflix official said that while the company has responded to a number of CRTC requests, it was not “in a position to produce the confidential and competitively sensitive information, but added it was always prepared to work constructively with the commission.”

Now things are very much up in the air. Many Canadians question why the CRTC believes it has the right to regulate Internet content when it operates largely as a broadcast regulator. Public opinion seems to be swayed against the CRTC and towards Netflix. Canadian producers and writers are concerned their jobs are at risk, Canadian media conglomerates fear their comfortable and predictable future is threatened if consumers decide to spend more time with Netflix and less time with them. All of this debate occurring within the context of a discussion about forcing pay television companies to offer slimmed down basic cable packages and implement a-la-carte — pay only for the channels you want — is enough to give media executives heartburn.

To underscore the point much of this debate involves money, American TV network executives also turned up at the CRTC arguing for regulations that would compensate American TV stations for providing “free” programming on Canadian airwaves, cable, and satellite — retransmission consent across the border.

Netflix does not seem too worried it is in trouble in either Ottawa or in the halls of CRTC headquarters at Les Terrasses de la Chaudière in Gatineau, Québec, just across the Ottawa River. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Heritage Minister Shelly Glover have made it clear they have zero interest in taxing or regulating Netflix. Even if they were, the Canada-U.S. free trade agreement may make regulating Netflix a practical impossibility, especially if the U.S. decides to retaliate.

Dwayne Winseck, Carleton School of Journalism and Communication, defended the role the CRTC is mandated to play by Canada’s telecommunications laws. (1:41)

Comcast-TWC Merger Now Issue in N.Y. Governor’s Race: Secret Meetings, New Questions

Gov. Cuomo

Gov. Cuomo

Does N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo support or reject the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable and why has an administration official been meeting behind closed doors with the companies involved?

If the merger is successful, more than 95 percent of upstate New York will be served by a single cable operator – Comcast, with little chance Verizon will mount a major challenge for video, broadband, and phone service customers outside of the areas where FiOS fiber upgrades have been announced. Although the Cuomo Administration promised an in-depth investigation into the merger, the governor has kept his own views close to the vest and has not publicly supported or opposed the transaction. But an administration official has met privately with executives of both cable companies and state regulators behind closed doors according to a new report.

According to public schedules obtained by Capital, Comcast representatives met at least three times in August with PSC members or staff in what one former commissioner called unusual circumstances.

James Larocca, a N.Y. PSC commissioner from 2008-2013, said it is not typical for officials from the governor’s office to meet with state regulators and cable executives in the same closed-door meeting.

“I did not meet with the second floor on pending matters and I’m not aware that other commissioners ever did,” Larocca said.

It is not unusual for companies with business before the Commission to meet with its staff or commissioners in ex parte conversations to set the parameters of hearings, filings, and other regulatory proceedings. All such meetings appear to have been properly disclosed by the PSC staff and the companies involved. But the fact some were held behind closed doors with a Cuomo Administration official and without public disclosure of the subjects discussed bothers some.

corporate-welfare-piggy-bankSusan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said what was discussed behind closed doors should be disclosed so the public can see what top state officials are saying to the cable executives.

“There are questions as to whether the PSC is a strong enough advocate for the people or the industry,” Lerner told Capital. “The agency has lost sight of its initial mission, which is to serve the public in regulating these absolutely essential services.”

Gerald Norlander at the Public Utility Law Project ponders what would happen if there were two negotiating tables discussing the merger, one public and the other secret.

“If there is a second table where views are exchange and negotiations are occurring, it doesn’t do well for transparency,” he said.

Public statements from both Comcast and the Cuomo Administration did little to clear the air.

“It was an initial meeting to discuss the public interest benefits of the transaction for New York,” a Comcast representative said in a one-sentence statement in response to questions about the meeting.

Not exactly, says the Cuomo Administration.

“The meeting was to explain the new law, the PSC’s new powers and its expanded oversight,” Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi said.

As has been the case during much of the merger debate, Time Warner Cable has remained silent and has refused to comment.

Comcast oregonThe governor himself has avoided taking sides, claiming he will abide by the recommendations made by the PSC. But if true, why involve the governor’s office in the merger or meet privately with either the PSC or the companies involved?

“The state is taking a hands-on review of this merger to ensure that New Yorkers benefit,” Cuomo said in May. “The Public Service Commission’s actions will help protect consumers by demanding company commitments to strong service quality, affordability, and availability.”

Cuomo himself has received at least $200,000 in campaign contributions from Comcast and Time Warner Cable. With customer satisfaction scores for both Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the basement, lobbying has been a necessity and Time Warner Cable is one of the state’s top lobbying forces, spending $500,000 of its subscribers’ money in New York in 2013 alone. Comcast spent $60,000, despite only serving a small sliver of customers in downstate New York.

The two companies also donated a combined $500,000 to a secretive state Democratic party account which Cuomo controls. Ironically, some of that money was used to run ads celebrating Gov. Cuomo’s efforts to get money out of politics.

New York Democratic candidate Zephyr Teachout is seeking to oust Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the fall election. One of the issues she is campaigning on is Cuomo’s significant contributions from Comcast and Time Warner Cable and his apparent lack of interest in stopping the merger. At a campaign stop in Syracuse, Teachout claims Comcast will raise your rates and offer no significant benefits to New Yorkers. She’d strongly oppose the merger and media consolidation in general, if elected. WRVO Radio reports. Aug. 29, 2014 (1:26)
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Teachout

Teachout

Cuomo’s Democratic primary opponent Zephyr Teachout and her running mate, Tim Wu (who coined the term “Net Neutrality”) are less murky on the issue. Both strongly oppose the merger and cable industry consolidation generally and have expressed serious concern about the governor’s acceptance of hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from both Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

Andrew Letson’s Politics Blog considers the differences between the two campaigns striking.

“It’s a sharp contrast – between the hypocritical man in office taking money from corporate interests and the candidates with integrity who are funding their campaign through largely individual donors,” Letson writes.

“[Both Wu and Teachout] have said that they would work to block the frightening Comcast-Time Warner merger, something that’s certainly on the minds of many New Yorkers,” says Letson. “What’s nice about that is that New York actually has a lot of power when it comes to this merger, so opposition from both the governor and lieutenant governor would go a long way.”

Letson is a Teachout campaign volunteer, so it is no surprise which candidate he supports.

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