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Net Neutrality/No Zero Rating Enforced in India: Telecom Regulator Hands Setback to Facebook

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma

TRAI Chairman R.S. Sharma

A plan by Facebook to deliver free limited Internet access to India’s poor and rural communities was delivered a blow this morning after the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) declared the plan would violate Net Neutrality and banned it.

TRAI’s ruling focused on the fact the proposed plan would only allow customers to access Facebook and other partnered websites the social network elected to let users access over its free service. The regulator declared no service provider in India will be allowed to offer or charge discriminatory rates for data services based on content.

The regulator relied heavily on the ISP License Agreement in its ruling, which requires subscribers to have “unrestricted access to all the content available on Internet except for such content which is restricted by the Licensor/designated authority under Law.” TRAI went further in its Net Neutrality declaration than regulators in the U.S. and parts of Europe, proclaiming price-based differentiation “would make certain content more attractive to consumers resulting in altering online behavior.” Under those terms, India has effectively banned the practice of “zero rating,” which exempts certain so-called “preferred content” from metering charges or counting against a customer’s usage allowance.

free basics“This is a big win for Indian consumers and Net Neutrality,” said Independent MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar. “This is a very powerful and positive first step taken by TRAI. The days of telcos controlling regulations and regulatory policy is over and it is consumers to the fore.”

Facebook’s Internet.org and its companion free mobile web service, now dubbed Free Basics, offers stripped-down web services without airtime or usage charges, targeting basic so-called “feature phones” that were common in the U.S. before smartphones. Facebook has targeted the free service on about three dozen developing countries including the Philippines, Malawi, Bangladesh, Thailand and Mongolia. India would have been Facebook’s largest market for Free Basics, until the telecom regulator effectively banned it.

In India, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s frequent entries into the debate, including a passive-aggressive OpEd widely panned in India, was seen by many as arrogant and counter-productive. Facebook’s ongoing campaign to enlist users’ active support of the project for the benefit of India’s telecom regulator created a row with the Office of the Prime Minister, that dismissed Facebook’s public relations defense of Free Basics “a crudely majoritarian and orchestrated opinion poll.

A misleading astroturf campaign only infuriated the government more after Facebook users (including some in the U.S.) were greeted with an invitation in their timelines to support “digital equality,” sponsored by Facebook. Regulators were flooded with form letters, only later to be informed many were misled to believe it indicated their support for Net Neutrality.

Facebook users across India (and some in the U.S.) were invited to defend "digital equality," which critics define as "opposing Net Neutrality".

Facebook users across India (and some in the U.S.) were invited by Facebook to defend “digital equality,” which critics define as “opposing Net Neutrality.”

“Facebook went overboard with its propaganda [and] convinced ‘the powers that be’ that it cannot be trusted with mature stewardship of our information society,” said Sunil Abraham, of the Center for Internet and Society in Bangalore.

Initially, Internet.org included Facebook and a handpicked assortment of content partners, including the BBC, that were allowed on the free service. Net Neutrality proponents accused Facebook of creating a walled garden for itself and its preferred partners, disadvantaging startups and other companies not allowed on the service.

Unlike in the United States where Net Neutrality was a cause largely fought by netizens, websites, and consumer groups, major media organizations in India helped coordinate the push for Net Neutrality. The Times of India and its language websites like Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, Ei Samay and Nav Gujarat Samay appealed to other broadcasters and publishers to remove themselves from Internet.org. NDTV, a major multi-lingual broadcaster running multiple 24-hour news channels, often promoted Net Neutrality on the air and encouraged Indians to support it.

Like in the United States, Indians faced a telecom regulator more accustomed to dealing with government officials and telecom companies. TRAI was quickly swamped with over one million comments in support of Net Neutrality, so many that invitations for future comments were moved to another government website that made it harder for consumers to address regulators. The unexpected level of support for Net Neutrality also led Facebook to change its Internet.org service and relaunch Free Basics as “an open platform.”

But websites included in the service still cannot contain data intensive product experiences, such as streaming video, high-resolution images and GIFs, videos, client or browser side caching or file and audio transfer services.

“Facebook defines the technical guidelines for Free Basics, and reserves the right to change them,” adds the SavetheInternet.in coalition. “They reserve the right to reject applicants, who are forced to comply with Facebook’s terms. In contrast they support ‘permissionless innovation’ in the US.”

In India, the argument has boiled down to whether the country would prefer a usage-limited open Internet platform for the poor or an unlimited experience for a handful of websites. TRAI prefers enforcing rules guaranteeing users can visit any website they want, even if the free service used comes with a usage cap.

It’s a major blow for Facebook and the telecom operators that were some of the service’s biggest defenders.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NDTV Net Neutrality India 2-8-16.mp4

Net Neutrality is now law in India, where the telecom regulator exceeded the United States by completely banning zero rated services, which allow users to avoid usage charges for certain applications or websites. (2:03)

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of net neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. India's largest e-commerce portal Flipkart on April 14 scrapped plans to offer free access to its app after getting caught up in a growing row over net neutrality, with the criticism of Flipkart feeding into a broader debate on whether Internet service providers should be allowed to favour one online service over another for commercial or other reasons -- a concept known as "net neutrality". AFP PHOTO / MONEY SHARMA (Photo credit should read MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

Activists of Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India shout anti-government slogans during a protest in support of Net Neutrality in New Delhi on April 16, 2015. (Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)

”COAI had approached the regulator with the reasons to allow price differentiation as the move would have taken us closer to connecting the one billion unconnected citizens of India,” said Rajan Mathews, director general of the Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI). “By opting to turn away from this opportunity, TRAI has ignored all the benefits of price differentiation that we had submitted as a part of the industry’s response to its consulting paper, including improving economic efficiency, increase in broadband penetration, reduction in customer costs and provision of essential services among other things.”

In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said: “Our goal with Free Basics is to bring more people online with an open, non-exclusive and free platform. While disappointed with the outcome, we will continue our efforts to eliminate barriers and give the unconnected an easier path to the Internet and the opportunities it brings.”

TRAI rejected industry claims that differential pricing will enable operators to bring innovative packages to the market.

India has 300 million mobile users but there are still nearly one billion Indians without Internet access. India is an important market for Facebook, with 130 million active Facebook users — second to only the United States.

Allowing Facebook to gain a foothold in rural India using zero rating was compared with British colonialism by Vijay Shekhar Sharma, the founder of PayTM — an Indian mobile payment system. He called Free Basics a trojan horse — “poor Internet for poor people” and referred to it as the colonial-era East India Company of the 21st century.

“India, Do u buy into this baby Internet?” Mr Sharma tweeted in December. “The East India company came with similar ‘charity’ to Indians a few years back!”

“Given that a majority of the [Indian] population are yet to be connected to the Internet, allowing service providers to define the nature of access would be equivalent of letting [operators] shape the users’ Internet experience,” TRAI said in its release.

Telecom operators should be able to adapt to a market that bans zero rating, analysts believe.

“Telecom service providers may not be happy with this notification,” Amresh Nanden, research director at Gartner, told NDTV News. “However, they still have the ability and freedom to create different kind of Internet access packages; as long as content is not a parameter to provide or bar access to anyone. Such practices have already started elsewhere with products such as bandwidth on demand, bandwidth calendaring etc. to create premium products.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/AIB Save The Internet 1 4-2015.mp4

All India Bakchod produced several humorous mostly English language videos teaching Indians about Net Neutrality and why it’s important. It’s a familiar case for North Americans dealing with our own telecom operators. (9:07)

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An update from All India Backchod last summer alerted India to an astroturf campaign underway at Facebook and telecom operators to mislead Net Neutrality supporters. (8:02)

More Than Half of America Would Wave Goodbye to ESPN for $8/Mo Off TV Bill

Phillip Dampier January 13, 2016 Consumer News, Online Video, Video 3 Comments

The buffet is open.

ESPN’s ability to bid for expensive sports rights may be threatened if pay television customers finally get a chance to subscribe to only the networks they want to watch.

A recent consumer survey conducted by Civic Science found 56% overall would remove ESPN/ESPN2, with 60% of female respondents and 49% of male respondents thrilled to drop ESPN to save $8 a month on their cable bill.

Richard Greenfield at BTIG Research has tried in vain to warn ESPN parent company Disney it may be on borrowed time.

“We continue to believe ESPN is in serious trouble as they spent far too heavily on long-term sports rights contracts, given the deteriorating state of the multichannel video bundle and accelerating shift of TV ad dollars to mobile,” Greenfield wrote in a note to investors. “Simply put, ESPN has been the largest beneficiary of the ‘BIG’ cable bundle for decades and is now dramatically overearning, with consumers the biggest losers.”

No basic cable network costs consumers more than ESPN, with $5-9 dollars of every cable TV bill paying for ESPN and its sister sports networks, whether customers watch or not. Each year, ESPN rakes in almost $9 billion from American households and advertisers, much of it used to bid for high-profile sporting events which used to appear exclusively on major broadcast networks. With billions on hand from pay television customers, many who also pay surcharges for sports programming and broadcast/over the air stations, sports teams and their owners are flush with cash. Some cable companies have even resorted to launching expensive cable networks in association with team owners just to secure viewing rights as competitors continue to bid up the price.

ESPN’s business model depends on making every cable customer pay for ESPN, so its contracts prohibit cable operators and satellite providers from placing the network on an added-cost tier.But as new online video providers launch, many are trying to omit expensive sports programming to give customers cheaper options. If consumers choose those providers, expensive cable networks are in big trouble.


ESPN president John Skipper admits ESPN’s secret: It rakes it at least $6 billion annually from cable customers, many who never watched ESPN. (Playing time varies)

Greenfield has tangled with Bob Iger, Disney’s chairman and CEO about the risks to ESPN’s future business model in the recent past. Iger has taken the cord cutting threat in stride, claiming ESPN is even prepared to start selling its networks individually, direct to consumers. Greenfield believes Iger is bluffing.

“As soon as ESPN launches a direct-to-consumer offering, it will remove the ‘protection’ they receive from cable/satellite distributors who guarantee ESPN a certain level of penetration,” Greenfield writes. “So no matter what price point ESPN/ESPN2 launch to consumers, it enables their legacy distributors such as Comcast to offer far more robust channel packages without ESPN.”

In an open market where customers get to decide on the channels they pay to receive, more than half of the country would not pay for ESPN, creating an enormous revenue hit for the network. Without adequate funds to compete in sports programming rights auctions, ESPN would likely lose access to many sporting events, further reducing revenue received from advertisers as ratings dropped. To make up for those subscriber losses, ESPN might have to charge consumers up to $30 a month for a Netflix-like ESPN offering. Civic Science asked how many would pay $20 a month for ESPN and found only 6% of survey respondents willing. In contrast, about 80 percent of Comcast customers now take ESPN, but not because they have a choice.

Cord-cutting may already be taking a toll on ESPN’s bank account. Those dispensing with a cable television package in favor of Hulu, Amazon, or Netflix may be partly to blame for ESPN’s decision to layoff 300 employees last fall.

“The math for a direct-to-consumer offering for a basic cable network does not work, especially for channel(s) with very high monthly fees embedded within the current MVPD bundle,” said Greenfield. “Disney cannot take ESPN direct-to-consumer and they know it, whether they admit that publicly or not. Furthermore, if the multichannel video bundle frays faster than expected and the TV ad market continues to weaken, ESPN’s future growth prospects are dim, at best.”

Canada Talks TV: Preparing for A-La-Carte Cable TV; Providers Threaten Rate Hikes

alacarte

Does Canada’s Food TV need special protection when it made 53% gross profits on the backs of cable subscribers that pay for the network whether they watch it or not?

“If you cut your cable, then your Internet is going to go up,” predicts Gary Pelletier, president of the Canadian chapter of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing.

That is just one of several predictions many Canadian cable and phone companies are claiming will come from the “disastrous decision” to allow consumers the freedom to pick and pay for only the cable channels they want to watch. Amidst claims that over 10,000 jobs will be lost, chaos and bankruptcy will stalk minority and niche cable networks, consumers will pay much higher bills, and American programming will boycott Canada fearing a-la-carte could make its way into the United States, Canada is at least having an adult discussion about the future of television and where it fits in the country’s identity.

Big changes are coming as a result of the latest great soul-searching made by our good neighbors to the north, always concerned about the potential of the Canadian Experience being overrun, if not decimated by the United States’ entertainment hegemony. In a moment of clarity, regulators have just realized what the rest of English-speaking Canada already knew: protectionist content regulations don’t work on the Internet. Canadians routinely bypass geographical restrictions and Canadian content laws with virtual private networks that relocate them, online at least, to a home address in the U.S. so they can binge-watch the unrestricted American versions of Netflix, Hulu and other online video services.

Regulators have now adopted the attitude – “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” encouraging Canadian entertainment producers to create fewer, but better shows that will not only attract Canadian audiences, but those abroad.

Only the exchange is supposed to be mutual. High quality Canadian television productions like Orphan Black, Schitt’s Creek, X Company, The Book of Negroes, This Life, 19-2, Vikings, Killjoys, Rookie Blue, and Murdoch Mysteries are all among Canadian critics’ top favorites. But relatively few Americans know these shows exist or assume they are co-productions owned by some American entertainment conglomerate. Only a brief glimpse of a Canadian flag during the warp speed end credits might clue viewers this isn’t the case.

Despite protectionist media policies that have endured since 1970, the Canadians are now boldly going where Americans have so far feared to tread. They are having the conversation about the future of television and online entertainment in all forms while American media barons remain in denial.

For average consumers, the biggest change will begin next spring when the era of Canadian a-la-carte cable television arrives, allowing consumers to take an ax to the expensive 120-300 channel television package once and for all. Starting March 1, all Canadian providers will be required to offer consumers a basic cable package priced at no more than $25 a month, containing Canadian and U.S. over the air stations and networks, educational, and public channels. If you want more, you can have it by buying channels or mini-packages of networks individually to create a personalized cable TV lineup of networks you actually care to watch.

Programmers across Canada, particularly those catering to sports fans, foreign audiences, religious viewers, and minorities are horrified by the idea. So are media critics that fear the change could help bring an end to Canada’s unique multilingual and multicultural identity.

special reportCustomers like James Rehor of Hamilton explains why.

“Why would I pay for it? Why do I get it? Why does it come on my TV?” asks the 60-year-old construction worker. He’s ready on day one to purge the large number of French and other non-English channels from his Cogeco Cable lineup. Rehor offers comfort to sports programmers, however. He’s a big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, so Leafs TV, Sportnet, and TSN will stay.

Non-sports fans are another matter. They can’t wait to ditch the sports networks that are always the most expensive channels in a Canadian cable package.

“Clearly the most expensive (channels) will always be sports,” Pelletier tells the Canadian Press. “At the end of the day, for sports watchers, their cable bill will probably stay the same or increase, maybe … In the case of someone who doesn’t watch any sports at all, their bill will probably decrease.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CRTC Supporting the creation of content made by Canadians for Canadians and global audiences 3-2015.mp4

An Age of Abundance: Canadian telecom regulators are transforming media regulations in Canada, recognizing the way Canadians watch television has changed. Quality, not quantity, is now most important. CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais discusses the new reality. (6:08)

Pelletier and his industry friends are on a mission to convince Canadians to leave well enough alone and not drop the current all-for-one price cable television package for a-la-carte — not realizing the potential consequences.

catnipSome in the cable industry have tried other scare tactics to no avail.

One industry-backed study predicted pick-and-pay could cost the economy 10,000 jobs. Consumers could care less. Unifor, a union that represents many in the television sector, seemed to agree Canada’s cultural heritage will be at risk with lowest common denominator programming dominating from St. John’s to Vancouver, much of it shoveled from the United States. But Canadians still want their House of Cards and Homeland.

Howard Law, a media spokesman for Unifor, predicts less profitable Canadian channels will fold under a pick-and-pay pricing model.

“The introduction of pick and pay will, in itself, lead to a major loss of revenues to Canadian broadcasting system, which ultimately plays out in less Canadian content and less Canadian jobs and less Canadian broadcasting,” he said in an interview on CBC’s The Exchange with Amanda Lang.

Minority interest and religious channels are also worried about their future. Most of those networks are classified as “specialty channels” by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). Legacy networks that have been around since at least the 1990s have been sitting pretty, protected by their designation as a “Category A” specialty station. Unlike in the United States, Canadian cable networks are licensed to operate by the CRTC, and at least 60 of those Category A networks also enjoy “genre protection,” a CRTC policy that guarantees their channel carriage on Canadian cable, satellite, and telco TV systems and protection from other cable networks that want to run the same kind of programming.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC How New CRTC Rules Will Change Canadian TV 3-2015.mp4

For decades, protectionist Canadian content regulations made certain Canadian television reflected its audience. But online video and the Internet has allowed Canadians to bypass traditional cable television to watch they want, not what the government hopes they will. New CRTC rules reflect that reality as Canadian TV rethinks how to get the viewer’s attention. From CBC-TV’s The National (4:16)

CRTC policies have allowed Canadian specialty channels to flourish despite operating in a smaller marketplace with fewer viewers than their American counterparts. That means networks like FoodTV and HGTV in Canada have profit margins ranging from 53-58 percent. Fashion Television and BookTV made an improbable $2.7 million in pre-tax profit, not so much from viewers but from the licensing fees every Canadian cable customer pays for the four networks whether they watch them or not.

From its inception, Canadian TV has always faced a looming shadow from the south. Protecting Canada's identity has been a priority for decades.

From its start, Canadian TV has always faced a looming shadow from the south. Protecting Canada’s identity has been a priority for decades.

“If you’re a specialty channel that’s lived within the protective cocoon of bundling for years, you’ve gotten used to having a full-time job with benefits,” independent technology analyst Carmi Levy told CBC News. “Contrast that with living outside the protective cocoon, you’re essentially a freelancer, you fight for every contract, you have no benefits, there are no guarantees that money will be coming tomorrow or next week.”

It probably won’t be coming from subscribers like Mr. Rehor, who won’t hesitate to drop channels if they go unwatched.

The CRTC is also doing some dropping of its own, starting with genre protection, which could lead many specialty networks to follow American cable networks that today depend on chasing ratings to justify their licensing fees. The unintended result in the United States has been questionable lineup changes like the appearance of Law & Order rerun marathons on WEtv, a network supposedly dedicated to women’s entertainment. Ovation, a fine arts independent cable network that is about a niche as a network can be, depended on weekend binges of PBS’ Antiques Roadshow reruns in 2012 just to attract enough viewers to show up in the ratings.

Lesser known networks like OutTV, Canada’s only network dedicated to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender viewers, may face an uncertain future if it can’t charge a premium price to make up for expected subscriber losses from pick and pay. Other niche channels may have to merge with other networks or more likely relaunch with an online platform and deliver a reduced menu of content to audiences.

crtcLarge Canadian mainstream networks and programmers don’t expect too much change from pick and pay, as most Canadians will likely still demand a package with their programming included. But distributors – cable, satellite, and telco TV platforms, do expect some major changes. The average Canadian now pays around $50 a month for basic cable, a price that will be cut in half next spring.

Rogers Cable already knows what is coming. It ran a trial in 2011 in London, Ont., with 1,000 customers who were given the choice of picking and paying for the channels they wanted. It didn’t take long for the cable company to discover customers loved it and TV stations and cable programmers hated it.

“We found that customers like bundles, but want to build their own. They want a basic package and an extra package they create,” Rogers spokesman Kevin Spafford told the Toronto Sun. “We did get push back from TV stations. There was concern about offering this service. They did not want us to proceed with that model.”

After the trial ended, Rogers allowed the pilot project participants to keep their pick and pay packages, something they’ve held tightly for over four years.

Rogers’ pilot offered something like what the CRTC is demanding be available to all Canadians:

rogers logoROGERS PICK AND PLAY PILOT

  • $20 a month for “skinny basic” TV package of Canadian stations. (The CRTC plan mandates no more than $25.)
  • 15-channel package for $27 a month. Other packages of 20 and 25 stations also offered, for more money. (The CRTC wants networks to offer channels individually or in mini-bundles.)
  • U.S. major networks offered for $3 a month. (Under the CRTC policy, these stations may appear under the basic or a-la-carte tiers.)

REGULAR ROGERS

  • Basic: $40 a month, 190 channels
  • Digital Plus: $63, 220 channels
  • Sports packages: $77, 230 channels
  • VIP TV: $77, 270 channels
  • VIP Ultimate: $119, 320 channels

The upcoming changes are probably the biggest in Canadian cable television history, but they still may not be enough to attract cord-nevers — those who have never subscribed to cable TV. Most are under 30 and already watch all their favorite shows online. Some budget-minded Canadians who want to cut their cable bill may consider joining them by cutting the cord altogether or slimming down their cable packages, but Pelletier warns that cable operators will not leave their money on the table.

cablecordSupplementing a slimmer cable package with a streaming service or two could increase data charges, Pelletier warns. Plus, you may have to surrender any discounts you get from bundling cable with home phone, Internet and/or wireless service.

Usage capped Internet is also still an effective deterrent for cord-cutting and whether your television entertainment comes over the cable or online, providers will still make a run for your wallet. Some observers predict providers will dramatically increase the retail prices of a-la-carte networks to limit potential savings while also continuing to raise broadband prices.

A 2014 national PIAC poll found 90 per cent of 1,000 consumers polled were willing to pay an additional $1 a month per channel, while 54 per cent would be willing to go $3 a month, and 21 per cent would be willing to pay $5 a month for an extra channel of their choosing. Many don’t realize under the current system the wholesale rate for many channels is under 50 cents a month. Considering what Canadians are willing to pay, it is likely cable companies will price channels according to what the marketplace will tolerate, which could be around $3 for each channel a month.

Suspicion about any cable company offering a New Deal is something Americans and Canadians have in common. Mr. Rehor is already keeping a wary eye.

“I think it’s a good idea, I just don’t know how they’re going to really work it,” he says, fearing it could ultimately end up costing the same amount he pays now.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBC Pick and Pay TV 3-2015.flv

CBC News offers this extended discussion about the implications of “pick and pay” cable television. (10:11)

COMCArrogance: Comcast CEO Lectures ‘Paranoid’ Customers to Get Used to Data Caps

Getting customers to accept data caps to help kill cord cutting.

Encouraging customers to accept data caps. (Image courtesy: Hairspray/New Line Cinema)

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts this week ignored customer opposition to his company’s expanding trial of usage caps, insisting usage billing “balance[s] the relationship” between the customer and the cable company.

“The more bits you use, the more you pay,” Roberts said.

Taking questions from Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget at the publication’s Ignition conference, Roberts immediately bristled at the idea Comcast had usage caps at all.

“They’re not a cap,” Roberts said. “We don’t want anybody to ever not want to stay connected on our network.”

Many Comcast customers would disagree, noting Comcast’s trial now limits most customers to an arbitrary 300GB allowance, after which a penalty overlimit fee of $10 for each additional 50GB applies.

Comcast’s public relations defense of usage caps depends on redefining a “limit” on usage into an “allowance” — one that also introduces the concept of usage-based billing. The company abandoned its old defense of usage caps as a congestion control measure, admitting in internal company documents Comcast’s 300GB allowance is nothing more than an arbitrary “business decision.”

It’s a decision Comcast’s broadband customers obviously don’t like. Customers in Shreveport, La., one of the latest markets to get Comcast’s cap treatment, are up in arms over the new limit, according to the Shreveport Times newspaper:

Stephen Pederson, social media manager for the Highland Restoration Association, said data caps are the most recent transgression from a company without a reputation for good customer service.

“This is utterly ridiculous,” Pederson wrote in an email. “Our various utility providers hold us hostage for basic necessities of modern life, and it is a serious injustice that seems to represent an insurmountable obstacle. What can we do? Is not our government in place to protect us from these injustices?”

When Blodget asked Comcast customers in attendance at the conference for questions he should bring to the head of America’s largest cable company, he got an earful.

“‘Ask him about these data caps. They’re driving me crazy,'” Blodget asked Roberts during a sit down interview. “Why data caps and what about this accusation that you don’t charge for your own data but you clobber people when they watch Netflix?”

comcast“Just as with every other thing in your life, if you drive 100,000 miles or 1,000 miles you buy more gasoline,” Roberts lectured. “If you turn on the air conditioning to 60º vs. 72º you consume more electricity. The same is true for usage.”

Roberts added mobile companies were already billing for data usage this way. He rhetorically asked Blodget, ‘why not cable Internet, too?’

Robert Marcus already answered that question for Time Warner Cable’s investors and customers.

“We know customers do place a value on the peace of mind that comes with unlimited plans,” CEO Marcus said on a conference call in late July. “[Time Warner Cable is] completely committed to delivering an unlimited broadband offering in connection with whatever else we do.”

Unlike Comcast’s trials that force usage caps on customers, Time Warner Cable chose to gauge customer interest first, introducing optional usage capped tiers offering a modest discount. Marcus quickly conceded they were a flop with customers.

Business Insider CEO Blodget (L) displays Comcast customers' frustration over data caps to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts (R). (Image courtesy: Business Insider)

Business Insider CEO Henry Blodget (L) displays Comcast customers’ frustration over data caps to Comcast CEO Brian Roberts (R). (Image courtesy: Business Insider)

“Very few customers — in the thousands (out of more than 10 million Time Warner customers) — have taken the usage based tiers and I think that speaks to the value they place on unlimited — not bad because we plan to continue to offer unlimited for as far out as we can possibly see,” Roberts said in 2014.

*In contrast, Roberts showed no interest in listening to customers’ criticism of Comcast’s caps, claiming they only affected a tiny minority – about 5% of customers, a fact quickly proven false by Comcast itself when it confirmed at least 8% of customers are already exceeding their allowance and that number is climbing. Roberts also ignored Blodget’s question about how Comcast’s usage caps will affect online video services, particularly those competing against Comcast’s own online video platform that won’t count against a customer’s usage allowance.

Online video competitor Sling TV has an answer to Blodget’s question.

“I think one of the areas we’re quite focused on is what’s happening in Washington, DC around Net Neutrality,” Sling TV CEO Roger Lynch told Cordcutting.com. “We see concerning things happening if you look at cable companies like Comcast now instituting data caps that just happen to be at a level at or below what someone would use if they’re watching TV on the Internet—and at the same time launching their own streaming service that they say doesn’t count against the data cap.”

Stop the Cap! also challenges Roberts’ philosophy on data caps and his flawed logic, which simply fails to withstand basic scrutiny and common sense.

Phillip Dampier: Who knew Comcast was being ironic when it promised improvements to the customer experience.

Phillip Dampier: Who knew Comcast was just being ironic when it promised improvements to the customer experience.

First, unlike water, gas, or electricity, data transmission is not a finite resource that must be captured, generated, or pumped from the ground. Roberts follows the grand tradition of pro-cap propagandists that claim it is ‘only fair’ that customers should pay for what they use without ever actually offering that option. Indeed, Comcast ignores the utility it most closely resembles — your home phone company. Like broadband, telephone calls are transported digitally across a national network that costs the companies nearly the same if you place 10 or 1,000 calls a month. Capacity is abundant and cheap to expand. The evidence of this is best represented by the near elimination of the concept of a long distance call. Most companies now offer nationwide calling plans that make it no longer necessary to wait for nights or weekends to grab discounted calling rates. Much the same is true for broadband. Despite increasing traffic, technological advancements have actually reduced the costs to transport data, despite usage growth.

Comcast’s broadband prices are already way and above anything reasonable to cover those costs and deliver a healthy return. In fact, the Wall Street Journal noted in 2012 that 90%+ of your monthly broadband bill represents gross margin, meaning if your broadband bill was cut by two-thirds, Comcast would still have more than enough money to cover their costs, upgrade their networks, and even cushion some of the revenue pressure coming from their cable television side of the business.

Second, if Comcast wants to idolize usage-based utility pricing, then like other utilities, it should be regulated on the state and federal level to ensure fairness in pricing and accuracy of measurement. Currently, Comcast’s usage measurement tools are subject to no independent oversight to guarantee accuracy. Comcast also faces scrutiny for its claimed advocacy of usage pricing without actually moving towards a “pay per use” model. Ask yourself when your gas and electric company charged you an arbitrary amount not based on actual usage? Comcast is not offering customers the option of paying for only exactly what they use. If you consume 30 or 300GB, the charge is the same. Your unused usage allowance does not rollover to the following month and is forfeit. Does the electric company charge you for electricity you never used? If you happen to go on vacation, Comcast still collects. If you shut your modem off, Comcast still collects. Heads they win, tails you lose.

price-gouging-cakeComcast’s idea of “balance” is to charge you not only for different speed tiers, but also for how much you use them. This ice cream cone costs $2.99. But if you eat more than 1/2 of it, you have to pay an extra ice cream consumption charge to be fair. Yet Comcast does not allow customers to choose only the TV channels they wish to watch — they pay for the entire lineup, whether watched or not.

Third, Comcast’s pricing isn’t focused on cost recovery, it is based on meeting shareholder’s revenue expectations and charging whatever the market will bear. Except this particular market is often a monopoly for High Speed Internet, and it is largely unregulated. That’s the classic recipe for robber baron price gouging. Cue Comcast.

This week, MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett warned the days of cable companies finding lots of new customers to boost broadband revenue are ending.

“Broadband in the United States is rapidly approaching saturation, and the pool of legacy DSL subscribers from which cable has recently drawn so much market share is rapidly declining,” Moffett said.

Wall Street revenue growth expectations are not slowing, however. That means companies will have to earn more revenue from existing customers to keep investors happy. If they continue raising the price of cable TV, cord cutting will accelerate. If they try to gouge their landline customers, people will stick with their cell phones. Broadband is the one service most consumers cannot do without. Economists recognize that a highly valued product will easily command higher pricing, which is why several Wall Street analysts are pushing for broad-based price hikes and usage-based billing. Monetizing broadband usage, limiting potential savings for light users, and continuing the usual rate increases is a formula for heavy profits, especially when there are few competitors to disrupt the marketplace.

analysisWhat evidence do we have of this? Our friends at the wireless phone companies offer a great example. Nobody gouged more for a telecom service than your wireless carrier’s text message fee. Texting cost carriers little to offer but it quickly became a profit center as demand rose. Carriers routinely charged 100,000 times more for a text message than they did for using a comparable sliver of 3G or 4G data. Your carrier’s cost to deliver 5,000 text messages a month is less than a penny. But not too long ago, AT&T and Verizon would have charged you $1,000 if you sent and received that many messages and didn’t buy one of their texting plans.

Pricing can change customer behavior in many ways. If you were charged several dollars for text messages every month, the companies encouraged you to sign up for texting plans that ranged from $5-20 a month to reduce the sting. You might even be grateful they offer such plans. What you didn’t realize is AT&T’s effective cost for each message was about $0.000002 per text—two ten thousandths of a cent. The same holds true for Comcast’s new $30-35 insurance plan that restores unlimited access. You might be relieved such an option is available in parts of Florida and Georgia, but you have effectively given Comcast up to $35 a month more for the exact same level of service you used to receive.

The plans and dollar amounts charged for telecom services often have little relationship to actual costs. Cell phone plans were originally based on an allowance of the number of voice minutes included with the plan. Exceed that and you would have paid upwards of 20 cents for each additional minute of talk time. But the carriers’ actual costs were much lower, evident when most suddenly transformed their business models to stop relying on voice minutes and texting for most of their revenue. The big money would now come from data usage — after companies ended flat rate usage plans. Carriers understood third-party apps like Skype, Hangouts, Whatsapp and others were bypassing their artificially inflated prices for voice calls and texting by relying on your data plan instead. Prices for voice and texting plans were no longer sustainable with app-based competition. But keeping competitors that rely on those data plans to connect their users in check can be easily accomplished by installing a meter on data usage and billing accordingly. Either way, companies like Verizon and AT&T guaranteed they would be paid.

Comcast is laying the groundwork to do the same. If you cancel Comcast cable TV and watch programming online, chances are excellent you will end up forking over another $30-35 a month to get rid of their usage cap. That’s almost pure profit Comcast can keep for itself and not share with any programmer. Either way, Comcast gets paid.

Roberts’ positive attitude about unpopular usage caps comes at the same time the company continues to claim it is cleaning up its reputation with customers. Not listening to what customers want sounds a lot more like the Comcast most customers are used to dealing with, and threatens to further diminish the company’s standing with consumers.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Business Insider Comcast CEO responds to usage caps 12-8-15.mp4

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts answers questions about data caps at the Business Insider Ignition Conference (2:03)

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)

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

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.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Corporation Commissioner Is Paid Lobbyist For Same Corporations She Regulates 12-3-15.mp4

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)

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

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.”

Vandals Cause $1 Million in Damages Collapsing AT&T Cell Tower in Texas

att_logoOne of AT&T’s cell towers in Denison, Tex. went missing last Thursday in the 1900 block of West Crawford St. after vandals cut the tower’s supporting guy wires, causing it to collapse.

Nearby residents woke up to find the remains of the tower crumpled on the ground, with dramatically poorer cell service the result for AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile customers in the immediate vicinity. All three mobile providers maintained antennas on the affected tower.

Denison Police say the incident was a clear case of vandalism. After the guy wires were intentionally cut, the tower lacked sufficient support to stay standing on its own.

Nobody was injured during the collapse, but AT&T says the vandals caused $1 million in damages. A temporary cell tower is now in place. It will take three months to permanently replace the cell tower.

AT&T is offering at least a $7,500 reward for information that leads to an arrest.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KXII Sherman ATT cell tower felled in Denison 11-22-2015.mp4

KXII in Sherman, Tex. reports Denison authorities are looking to arrest the vandal(s) that destroyed an AT&T cell tower. (1:30)

Bradford County, Pa. Complains About Poor Service, Frontier Sends ‘Cease & Desist’ Letter

The slow lane

The best way Frontier Communications believes it can resolve service problems in Pennsylvania is to threaten those complaining with a cease and desist letter that accuses the complainant of misrepresenting Frontier’s excellent service.

Bradford County, Pa. officials learned this first hand when Commissioner Darryl Miller wrote to Frontier alerting them that service outages in northeastern Pennsylvania are becoming a public safety issue. The company responded with a letter warning the commissioner to end the criticism or else.

“We’re simply looking for answers,” Commissioner Miller told WNEP-TV’s investigations reporter Dave Bohman. Miller adds he thinks it’s heavy-handed to use the words, “cease and desist.”

Miller isn’t the only one looking for answers. WNEP interviewed Susan Moore, who lives alone in the rural community of Orwell. Her phone service went out of service at least once a week over the summer.

“I’ve got a lot of health issues,” she told the TV station. The implications of not having landline service became all too clear to Moore in August when she needed to send for an ambulance.

Bradford County, Pa.

Bradford County, Pa.

Moore pressed her lifeline call alert button which relies on Frontier phone service to reach medical aid in case she falls and cannot get up or has a medical emergency. Nothing happened. Her phone service was out again.

“Without the phone service, my Life Alert doesn’t work,” Moore said. “That’s when I decided, as much pain as I was in, I got in a car and drove 20 miles to get to a hospital.”

Bradford County officials hear stories like Moore’s so often, they now eclipse complaints about potholes and taxes.

The problems affect both traditional landline dial tone service and DSL. If outages are not the subject of the complaint, slow and unresponsive Internet access usually is. Some customers were told Frontier oversold its DSL service in Bradford County and the company is waiting for federal broadband subsidies to improve service in the area.

Frontier Communications vice president Elena Kilpatrick said Frontier will spend part of a $2 million broadband improvement subsidy to deliver better service in Bradford County over the next six years. At the same time Frontier is tapping a ratepayer-funded subsidy to improve its existing service, the company is spending $10.5 billion of its own money to acquire Verizon landline infrastructure and customers in Florida, Texas, and California.

Despite the fact it will take up to six years to fully spend the subsidy, Kilpatrick claims the company has already upgraded phone and Internet service and fixed several problems reported by customers. She defended the company’s use of a threatening “cease and desist” letter sent to Commissioner Miller, claiming Frontier wanted the “misrepresentation of the facts” to stop.

Despite Kilpatrick’s claims, the complaints keep rolling in.

Randy, a Frontier customer in Bradford County reports he endures Frontier outages just about every Saturday since October, despite repeated service calls. Janise Groover wrote a Frontier technician tried to blame cobwebs for interfering with her Wi-Fi signals and poor DSL speeds — problems that are still unresolved — for which she pays Frontier $103 a month. Janice Bellinger complained her Frontier DSL connection drops “three or four times a day.” Customers in Monroe, Luzerne and Sullivan counties echoed Frontier service is dreadful in their areas as well.

Customers experiencing problems with their phone service in Pennsylvania can file an informal complaint with the state Public Utilities Commission and the FCC.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WNEP Scranton Frontier Service Problems 11-16-15.mp4

WNEP in Scranton reports Frontier’s solution to a county commissioner’s complaints about service was to send him a “cease and desist” letter. (3:16)

Sanders: ‘Verizon’s Greed Has No End;’ Company Accused of Declaring War on Middle Class

cwa sanders

Sanders

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) called out Verizon’s employment practices in a speech Monday delivered in solidarity with Verizon workers conducting informational picketing as they continue to fight for a new contract with the phone company.

“Their greed knows no bounds,” Sanders told the crowd in Manhattan. “Verizon is a metaphor. You got corporate America making huge profits, their CEO’s getting huge compensation packages, and then with all of their money what they do is hire lawyers in order to make it harder for workers to survive in this country. Workers need decent pay raises, they need decent health care, and they need decent pensions.”

It was the first time any major presidential contender joined a worker protest since Jesse Jackson joined a protest against a strike-breaking firm in 1988.

“Let me get to the point,” Sanders said at a picket line outside of a Verizon Wireless store. “The middle class in this country is disappearing and what Verizon is doing to their workers is exactly what has got to be fought if we are going to rebuild the American middle class. What this campaign is about is that corporate America can’t have it all.”

verizon-protest“I think Verizon needs to hear from the American people,” Sanders added. “We want them to create more broadband. We want them to pay their workers a decent wage. We want them to sit down and negotiate a decent contract.”

A Verizon spokesperson dismissed Sanders’ speech as “a stunt.”

Sanders is no stranger to telecom issues in the northeastern U.S. He remains a fierce critic of FairPoint Communications, which acquired Verizon landlines in the northern New England states of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. After the company declared bankruptcy reorganization, FairPoint workers went on strike after the firm imposed the elimination of all retirement benefits, health care coverage, pensions, and job security.

Sanders sponsored a Thanksgiving dinner for the strikers and their families in Vermont at the Burlington High School. He is a frequent critic of corporate mergers in the telecommunications marketplace.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bernie Sanders Verizon Rally 10-26-15.mp4

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) attacks Verizon’s corporate policies at a union picket outside a Verizon Wireless store in Manhattan. (5:25)

N.Y. City Council Investigates Verizon Foot-Dragging FiOS, Possible Contract Violations

fios_logo182More than 100,000 Verizon customers in New York City asking for FiOS fiber optic service are still waiting — 75% of them for more than a year — for a service Verizon promised would be available to every city resident by 2014.

In many of those cases, Verizon gave customers nothing but excuses and false information, sometimes in apparent violation of Verizon’s contract with the City of New York.

That was the opening contention of Vincent J. Gentile, chairman of the New York City Council’s Committee on Oversight and Investigations, in a four and a half hour-long hearing on Verizon FiOS availability held Oct. 14.

City officials are frustrated with Verizon’s performance under its FiOS franchise. Complaints about service availability have persisted for years and Mayor Bill de Blasio has been critical of Verizon’s foot-dragging to make fiber service available to every New Yorker that wants the service. As little as 30 minutes before the hearing, complaints continued to reach public officials from customers being told FiOS was not available. In fact, many were instead steered to a Verizon package that bundled satellite television instead of fiber optics.

special reportNew York City is Verizon’s largest market for FiOS fiber optic service. Verizon’s Leecia Eve, vice president of government affairs for the Tri-State Region, claimed the company has invested more than $3 billion upgrading New York City for fiber service and took umbrage at suggestions the company was reneging on its commitments, telling committee members Verizon fulfilled its FiOS commitments “one thousand percent.”

Such claims cause Verizon FiOS-less customers across New York City to bristle. In August, the New York Times reported Barbara Cooke-Johnson, a resident on Putnam Avenue in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn had waited for two years for Verizon to reach her block. She isn’t alone. City Council members have been inundated with complaints from residents unable to get FiOS service, even after placing orders well over a year ago.

“For years, I have heard complaints from residents in my district, who have attempted to sign on to the Verizon FiOS service, but learned their area did not provide coverage, “said council member Annabel Palma, who represents the neighborhoods of Parkchester, Soundview, Castle Hill, Clason Point and Harding Park in the Bronx. “New Yorkers need affordable and reliable high-speed broadband access throughout all the five boroughs, but especially in the Bronx.”

Several council members blamed the prior Bloomberg Administration for negotiating a broadly Verizon favorable contract that maintained a largely hands-off policy on oversight of the company’s fiber optic deployment, with few penalties at the city’s disposal to keep Verizon to its word. The Bloomberg Administrated granted multiple requests made by Verizon between 2008-2011 to reduce the performance bond the company agreed to secure as an assurance to city officials it would meet the terms of its franchise agreement.

Kevin Service (L), vice president, region operations - New York City and Leecia Eve, vice president of government affairs - New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut testify before the City Council of New York.

Kevin Service (L), vice president, region operations – New York City and Leecia Eve (R), vice president of government affairs – New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut testify before the City Council of New York.

Verizon’s agreement with the city required it to “pass all households” with fiber optic service within the franchise service area by June 30, 2014. Verizon blamed Hurricane Irene and Superstorm Sandy for missing that deadline, but claims it finally achieved it in October 2014.

Councilman Gentile pressed Service for more information about the gap between what city officials consider to be “homes passed” and what Verizon considers that term to mean.

“We do consider it to be passed if we’re in the realm of ‘substantial fiber placement,'” responded Kevin Service, Verizon’s vice president of region operations – New York City. “I’m not a lawyer, so here is what I would say. We’ve passed a household if when we get a request for service and have the necessary rights of way, what we have left to do does not create a delay in bringing service to that customer. Under that ‘Kevin Service definition,’ we’ve passed every household in New York City.”

Gentile countered that Verizon officials sent documents to the city admitting 23.6% of New York City blocks that Verizon deems “passed” have no buildings with Verizon FiOS service installed.

Much of the dispute between Verizon and New York City officials now centers on a widening gap between the city’s definition of “homes passed” and the one Verizon is now relying on to defend itself against charges it is violating its agreement.

Both sides agree nobody bothered to precisely define “premises passed” in the contract. The term is commonly used by the cable industry to reflect availability of cable service. Nielsen Media, among others, defines it to mean, “households with the ability to receive a particular cable service, and which may opt to subscribe.” The Fiber to the Home Council offers a more detailed definition, one used by the city’s auditors reviewing Verizon’s performance:

“The number of “Homes Passed” is the potential number of premises to which an operator has capability to connect in a service area, but the premises may or may not be connected to the network. This definition excludes premises that cannot be connected without further installation of substantial cable plant such as feeder and distribution cable (fiber) to reach the area in which a potential subscriber is located.” (emphasis added).

Verizon dismissed the Fiber to the Home Council’s definition as one prepared only “for purposes of its ‘market research,'” and claimed it had no standing because the organization is not party to the agreement between Verizon and the city.

Verizon used a dictionary to create its own definition of the phrase in a rebuttal to the city audit:

“General dictionary definitions of the term refer to going by, past, beyond, or through a place (such as a building), and include no requirement as to how close a place must be approached in order to constitute a “passage.” Thus, there is nothing inherent in the word itself that would require Verizon to run cable directly in front of every building in the City in order to “pass” those buildings.”

NYCDOITT.svg“The argument that ‘passing’ a premises with fiber optic cable includes no requirement of any proximity to that premises is manifestly untenable,” city auditors concluded.

If the dispute ends up in court, Verizon’s definition loophole may not prove much of a defense when a judge reviews the rest of the agreement. Whether Verizon has fiber facilities sufficiently nearby or not may not matter once a customer requests service. Under the terms of the contract, Verizon generally has to deliver FiOS within 6-12 months of a customer request, and there is ample evidence Verizon is not meeting that obligation.

The auditors found Verizon customer service agents were quick to tell customers FiOS service was unavailable to them and often failed to offer customers a “non-standard installation” (NSI), which starts the 6-12 month deadline to provide service. Even requesting an NSI was no guarantee of getting fiber service. Auditors found 74.68% of the 41,928 customer requests for an NSI were still outstanding as of Dec. 31, 2014, more than 12 months after the order was taken.

A raucous audience in the hearing room frequently jeered Verizon’s claims it was in full compliance with its franchise contract. Verizon officials defended the company’s performance, noting it was the first in New York City to offer service to every borough to compete with Cablevision and Time Warner Cable (and their predecessors) — cable companies that built their networks under the protection of a monopoly and given more favorable terms to gradually expand their infrastructure over a decade or more. Eve said Verizon achieved success despite the obstacles that have arisen, including objections from some building owners that have refused to admit Verizon technicians to install FiOS service for tenants.

Service admitted Verizon currently has a backlog of at least 100,000 requests for Verizon FiOS service in the city it has not yet met. Service blamed that number mostly on building access disputes, an excuse that allowed him to insist Verizon was in compliance with its agreement.

Service also suggested the city’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT – pronounced “Do-It”) and some of the company’s unions have sought to muddy the waters by unilaterally redefining Verizon’s contract with New York.

http://phillipdampier.com/video/WNBC New York Verizon FiOS Not Installing High-Speed Internet for 25 Percent of NYers Who Want It 7-15-15.flv

WNBC-TV in New York reported 25% of New Yorkers seeking Verizon FiOS Internet were turned away by the company. [Report originally aired: July 15, 2015] (2:01)

“To simplify the issue, the pass all homes obligation involves strategically placing fiber optic cables throughout the streets of New York City such that the fiber optic network can then be extended into specific buildings upon request, provided that we can get access to the building and into that building,” Service said. “It does not mean, contrary to some public confusion, that Verizon’s network would have been extended into every New York City household. Where we have not brought our FiOS service to a customer that has requested it, it’s because we haven’t yet secured all the necessary rights of way to do so.”

Verizon workers install fiber optic cables in New York City.

Verizon workers install fiber optic cables in New York City.

“I think it’s important to note that the city’s franchise agreements with Cablevision and Time Warner included an express obligation to run facilities in front of each building in the city,” Service reminded the audience. “In stark contrast, Verizon’s agreement does not include that language. This is no accident. The parties recognized while the agreement was being negotiated that Verizon would deploy its all-fiber network as an upgrade to its existing copper network, running the fiber along the same routes as it historically used to serve the buildings in the city. […] Although there are now attempts by some to unilaterally and retroactively revise the intent and meaning of the agreement, the word ‘passed’ was always understood and used by Verizon and the city in that context.”

Service explained getting FiOS service involves a multi-step process and it is not as simple as passing a fiber cable through a neighborhood.

“In order to fulfill [our] obligation [to provide FiOS] to a resident in an [multi-dwelling unit] not only does the building have to be passed by Verizon’s facilities, as all buildings are today, it also must be network created,” Service said. “In other words, the deployed fiber used to serve the building must be extended into the building from the street or backyard, or is frequently the case, through adjoining buildings to provide service to the individual units in the building.”

Customers can expect delays if they are the first in a building to request FiOS service.

“When a single resident requests service, it is Verizon’s policy to make the entire building ready for FiOS service. After that is complete, subsequent requests for service will no longer be considered NSI requests. Instead they are standard installation requests,” Service added, noting this is more efficient than simply provisioning service one customer at a time.

Union members who work for Verizon scoffed at Service’s explanations, accusing the company of systematically cutting back on FiOS spending and diverting money into its more profitable Verizon Wireless operation.

“They tend to blame landlords,” CWA representative Pete Sikora told Gothamist. “They tend to blame everyone but themselves. They didn’t have a gun held to their heads; they signed that agreement willingly, because they want to make more money. What they’re doing here is effectively picking and choosing which streets to serve.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CWA Verizon FiOS Broken Promises 10-13-15.mp4

The Communications Workers of America have begun running ads criticizing Verizon for failing to bring FiOS service to New Yorkers. (0:30)

Customers didn’t readily accept Verizon’s explanations either.

“As a board member of my co-op, I’ve been trying to get FIOS in our building for four years now,” wrote one Gothamist reader. “I’ve spoken with everybody at Verizon about this and the outcome has been that Verizon will wire the block and its buildings when Verizon feels like it.

Council member Brad Lander

Council member Brad Lander

Most of those seeking FiOS service and not getting it learn FiOS is “not available” from Verizon’s website or a customer service agent. When asked when the service might be available, it is common for representatives to answer they have no idea. Critics say that violates the terms of the contract, which requires Verizon to make a good faith effort to give an estimated wait time before an installation can be made. Service was on the defensive explaining why customers are routinely told no service is available.

“There is no area in the city [we do not service] and nobody should be told that,” Service said. “Having said that, we have 12,000 employees — we have a large employee body that we are constantly training and retraining and to the extent that they have told somebody that service is not available, that’s an indication that we have more to do in that area.”

“I must tell you that Councilman Lander just whispered in my ear that he was told 30 minutes ago that where he lives in Brooklyn is not serviced,” responded Councilman James Vacca.

Councilman Brad Lander, the deputy leader of policy, later confronted the two Verizon representatives about his own unsuccessful attempts to get FiOS service at his own home in Park Slope and questioned their solution to the problem.

“It sounds to me like you are saying the problem is not that FiOS is unavailable at my house, the problem is that Stacy [a Verizon customer service representative] didn’t say to me ‘Mr. Lander it’s available in your neighborhood, just not to you.'”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Council Member Brad Lander Takes Verizon Apart.mp4

Council member Brad Lander shares his experience not being able to get FiOS service from Verizon at last week’s City Council hearing. (2:45)

Time Warner Cable Hired Sexual Predator as Technician; Guilty Plea After Attacking Female Customers

Malave (Image: Bergen County Sheriff's Office)

Malave (Image: Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office)

If Time Warner Cable bothered to Google Jonathan Malave, they might have never hired him as a cable installer/technician.

Previously charged and convicted as a sexual predator, Malave, 32, of Montvale, N.J., already had a criminal history after assaulting a female Cablevision customer on his last job during a service call in 2012. But Time Warner Cable hired him anyway, despite the fact the high-profile case drew significant media attention (including Stop the Cap! We covered the story in April, 2012).

In July 2014 at his new job working for Time Warner, Malave sexually assaulted a 60-year old Ridgefield Park woman during a service call, while wearing proper Time Warner Cable credentials. One month later, he raped a 73-year old Fairview customer after she let him inside to repair her service. After being arrested by the local authorities’ Special Victims Unit, Malave was charged in both incidents. In September 2015, Malave pled guilty in Bergen County court and is awaiting sentencing.

The Fairview woman, who lives alone, was left deeply traumatized by the event according to her attorney Rosemarie Arnold. She is suing Malave and Time Warner Cable for unspecified damages alleging the cable company should have known Malave was dangerous.

“All they had to do was Google him,’’ Arnold told The Record. “This is negligent hiring. You’re hiring a sexual predator and sending them to women’s homes.’’

“Defendant Jonathan Malave had a history of sexual harassment and/or sexual abuse and/or inappropriate sexual behavior which defendant was aware or should have been aware of,’’ the lawsuit claims. The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages for medical expenses, pain and suffering, punitive damages, legal fees and costs.

Time Warner Cable had no comment except to say it conducts background checks on its employees and would continue to work with local law enforcement on these types of cases.

WABC-TV in New York reported last fall Malave had assaulted three female customers in their homes while working for two different cable companies. Time Warner terminated his employment after the third incident. (2:31)

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