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Charter Sues Striking Union Over Alleged Acts of Sabotage; Lobbyist Earns from Both Sides

Phillip Dampier October 16, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

Members of IBEW Local 3 have been on strike for about seven months. (Image: IBEW Local 3)

Charter Communications is suing the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3 alleging its striking members are responsible for repeated acts of vandalism and sabotage of Charter’s cable service Spectrum in the New York City area.

The lawsuit, filed last week in Manhattan Supreme Court, claims union members have cut or damaged cables and other property at least 125 times since the union went out on strike in March.

“The sabotage was done purely out of maliciousness,” Charter’s attorneys allege in the lawsuit. “The saboteurs clearly knew the optimal locations where they could quickly cut cable lines to multiple customers without being harmed or observed, suggesting they are cable technicians who work for Charter.”

A Charter spokesman said the company filed the suit to get union members to stop damaging its equipment.

Union members suggest Charter brings no hard evidence to the table about who is responsible. Union officials have repeatedly denied involvement and have urged those responsible to stop, noting it risks turning Spectrum customers against the union.

Meanwhile, a powerful New York City lobbying firm appears to be getting rich representing Charter Communications while also representing three of the cable company’s biggest critics in City Hall, including New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio.

The Daily News reports the MirRam Group represents the mayor, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Public Advocate Letitia James. James has been a client since 2013 while Mayor deBlasio hired the company in April to assist him with his re-election campaign. The lobbying firm has collected $150,000 from Charter and its predecessor Time Warner Cable in the last 12 months.

The newspaper reports the terms of the contract require MirRam Group to promote Charter’s business with ‘key public officials’ in city and state government, including monitoring legislative developments that could impact on the cable company in New York. The lobbying firm is also required to “promote Charter’s public policy interests” and is not supposed to “represent other clients on matters adverse to or in conflict with” the cable company’s goals.

AT&T Loses 390,000 U-verse, DirecTV Subscribers; Denies Cord-Cutting a Factor

Phillip Dampier October 12, 2017 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 3 Comments

AT&T tried to calm investors Wednesday in an 8-K filing with regulators, reporting that although it has likely lost 390,000 DirecTV satellite and U-verse video customers in the last three months, it has gained 300,000 online streaming customers for its DirecTV Now TV service.

The company is required to report materially adverse changes to its business to shareholders, and AT&T elected not to wait until its next quarterly earnings report to divulge the substantial losses in video customers. DirecTV Now gains are not expected to be a significant panacea for investors because AT&T reportedly makes little or no profit from the service since it launched in late 2016.

AT&T avoided blaming cord-cutting for customer losses:

The video net losses were driven by heightened competition in traditional pay TV markets and over-the-top services, hurricanes and our stricter credit standards. The decline of traditional video subscribers negatively impacts our Entertainment Group revenues and margins, resulting in an adjusted consolidated operating income margin that will be essentially flat versus the year-ago third quarter.

Overall, the company confessed it lost 90,000 total video subscriptions once DirecTV Now’s gains were included.

AT&T told investors earlier this year it was substantially cutting marketing of its U-verse video service and began encouraging customers to subscribe to DirecTV satellite service instead. But the satellite TV service is rapidly losing customers as well. Wall Street analysts suggest the only explanation for this is cord-cutting.

“The issue is in the acceleration in cord-cutting, and the prevalence of [online streaming], not each other,” said Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson. “It is becoming increasingly clear that the wheels are falling off of satellite TV” noting that Dish Networks subscriber numbers appeared dismal as well.

Moffett predicted with the ongoing video losses impacting satellite television, he thought it unthinkable the two satellite companies might consider merging.

Lexington, Ky. Proposes Giving Charter 30 Days to Resolve Problems or Face Fines

Phillip Dampier October 12, 2017 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Charter Communications will have 30 days to fix alleged problems affecting Lexington, Ky.’s cable subscribers or the company could face fines of $500 a day for each violation.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Council voted to put the resolution on its agenda for tonight’s meeting, and it is expected to pass.

The city is exasperated over Spectrum’s failure to allow customers to speak to supervisors, not allowing customers to return cable equipment by mail, and for charging customers for services they did not order.

“Because of the volume of complaints we have received, we have decided to go forward with this next step,” General Services Commissioner Geoff Reed told the Lexington Herald-Leader.

The complaints began pouring into city offices shortly after Charter Communications’ Spectrum replaced Time Warner Cable.

Because of federal deregulation, local authorities have little say over cable company rates or services and no say at all over internet service. But the city can hold the cable company accountable to its video service franchise agreement. If Charter fails to correct the alleged deficiencies, the county council can order an administrative hearing and fine the company up to $500 a day per violation.

T-Mobile/Sprint Merger Approval May Depend on GOP Maintaining Majority in Congress

As the wireless industry awaits an announcement that T-Mobile and Sprint have an agreement to merge, some on Wall Street are skeptical the merger deal will win approval, especially if Republicans lose their majority in the House and Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections.

Matthew Niknam of Deutsche Bank has warned his clients any merger deal not approved by next November is more likely to fall apart if  Democrats take back control of Congress:

“There also may be greater incentive for both sides to evaluate a potential deal sooner rather than later, given the risk that deal approval may slip beyond mid-term elections in late 2018 (with the risk that more populist/less corporate-friendly sentiment may become more pervasive in D.C.) In fact, we note that the Democrats’ ‘Better Deal’ agenda (unveiled in July 2017, targeted towards 2018 elections) highlights ongoing corporate consolidation as a threat to U.S. consumers, and proposes sharper scrutiny of potential deals.”

Nikram writes there has not been a lot of interest by cable operators to acquire Softbank’s Sprint, which has been effectively up for sale or merger for at least a year.

Fierce Wireless notes Cowen & Company Equity Research last month suggested the chance of a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint was now 60-70%, down from 80-90% originally. The reason for the pessimism is their estimate that any deal’s chance of winning approval was only about 50%. The odds get even worse if the Democrats start to check the Trump Administration’s power.

Public policy groups and well-compensated industry opinion leaders are already preparing to wage a PR war over a deal that would reduce America’s major wireless carriers to just three.

Professor Daniel Lyons, well-known for writing pro-industry research reports defending almost anything on their corporate policy wish list, is hinting at a possible strategy by the merging carriers by suggesting neither could survive without a merger.

Most analysts predict that with just three national wireless carriers, the U.S. wireless marketplace would more closely resemble Canada — widely seen as more carrier-friendly and expensive.

Wall Street analysts are debating exactly how many tens of thousands of jobs will be lost in a merger, and the numbers are staggering.

Jonathan Chaplin of New Street Research predicts the merger would cost the country more jobs than now exist at Sprint.

He predicts “approximately 30,000 American jobs” will be permanently lost in a merger. Together the two companies currently employ 78,000 — 28,000 at Sprint and 50,000 at T-Mobile.

Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson Research was more conservative, predicting 20,000 job losses would come from a merger. But the impact would not be limited to just direct hire employees.

“We conservatively estimate that a total of 3,000 of Sprint and T-Mobile’s branded stores (or branded-equivalent stores) would eventually close,” Moffett’s report said.

Golden parachutes will make some executives at Sprint and T-Mobile very wealthy if a merger succeeds.

Many T-Mobile and Sprint stores are located in malls and retail “power centers” where maintaining both stores would be unnecessary. Also hard hit would be wireless tower owners and those employed to care for them. Most believe Sprint’s CDMA wireless network would eventually be decommissioned in a merger, and many of its cell sites would be mothballed. Sprint’s biggest asset is its currently unused trove of high frequency wireless spectrum it could use to deploy future 5G services, but those services would likely be provided from small cells mounted on utility poles and street lights.

The biggest winners in any deal will likely be top executives at Softbank, Sprint, and T-Mobile, Wall Street banks providing deal advisory services and financing, and shareholders, who can expect higher earnings from a less competitive marketplace. Fierce competition from T-Mobile and Sprint were both directly implicated for threatening revenues for all four wireless companies, who have had to respond to aggressive promotions by cutting prices and offering more services for less money.

The Trump Administration’s choices of Ajit Pai for Chairman of the FCC and Makan Delrahim as United States Assistant Attorney General for the Antitrust Division of the Justice Department are both widely seen as signals the White House is not going to crack down on competition-threatening merger deals. Mr. Pai has recently improved the foundation for a T-Mobile/Sprint merger by declaring the wireless industry to be suitably competitive, something required before seriously contemplating reducing the number of competitors.

Eight Democrats sent a letter to the FCC chairman last week calling on both the FCC and the Justice Department to begin an investigation into the possible merger as soon as possible, citing possible antitrust concerns.

The text of the letter:

Dear Chairman Pai and Assistant Attorney General Delrahim:

We write to ask you to begin investigating the impact of a merger between T-Mobile International and Sprint Corporation. According to Pew Research, over three-quarters of Americans now own smartphones, driven by a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership among adults over age 65 and a 12 percent increase in smartphone ownership in households earning less than $30,000 a year since 2015. Today, smartphones are not really just phones at all. For many, they are the primary connection to the internet. An anticompetitive acquisition would increase prices, burdening American consumers, many of whom are struggling to make ends meet, or forcing them to forego their internet connection altogether. Neither outcome is acceptable.

We believe that an investigation is appropriate for three reasons. First, aggressive antitrust enforcement benefits consumers and competition in the wireless market. Second, a combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust issues and could dramatically harm consumers. Third, although a deal has not been announced, the two parties have made repeated attempts to merge, and current reports suggest they are close to an agreement. Your agencies should be in a position to fully – but expeditiously – investigate and analyze this deal should it occur.

Competition among wireless carriers has lowered prices, increased quality, and driven innovation

Consumers have benefited from competition among the four national carriers, and we have effective antitrust enforcement to thank for that competition. In the summer of 2011, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Antitrust Division filed suit to block AT&T’s proposed acquisition of T-Mobile despite claims that T-Mobile was a weak competitor and, without the deal, remaining options “won’t be pretty.”  The FCC likewise outlined its opposition to the deal that fall. The deal collapsed, but T-Mobile did not. It competed. It spent billions improving its network, and it offered better terms; for example, it eliminated two-year contracts and data overages. It enticed customers to switch providers by paying their termination fees. And, its competitors had to respond in kind. As William Baer, former head of DOJ’s Antitrust Division, has explained, consumers have enjoyed “much more favorable competitive conditions” since that transaction was blocked.  In May 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that cellphone plan prices were down 12.9 percent since April 2016, the largest decline in 16 years, and attributed the drop to “intense competition” among the top cell service providers: Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T.  Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, specifically suggested that it was caused by the “price war that has broken out among cell-phone service providers, with all the big providers now offering unlimited data plans at cheaper rates.”

Further, the fact that T-Mobile and Sprint appear to be each other’s primary competitor raises additional concerns about this potential horizontal merger. That direct competition has particularly benefited lower-income families and communities of color, many of whom rely on mobile broadband as their primary or only internet connection.  Sprint and T-Mobile have offered products and service options that are more appealing to lower-income consumers. For example, T-Mobile was the first major carrier to offer a no contract plan,  and both Sprint and T-Mobile have been leaders in offering prepaid and no credit check plans, which allow people who may have poor credit to obtain a cell plan and ultimately access the internet.

A combination of T-Mobile and Sprint would raise significant antitrust concerns

Not surprisingly, when T-Mobile and Sprint first discussed a merger in 2014, both of your predecessors expressed skepticism. William Baer stated that “[I]t’s going to be hard for someone to make a persuasive case that reducing four firms to three is actually going to improve competition for the benefit of American consumers.”  Similarly, former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler simply explained, “[f]our national wireless providers are good for American consumers.”

What is surprising, however, is that a few years later the two companies have revived their merger talks. Whether one looks at cellphone competition as a national market or as numerous local markets, T-Mobile’s acquisition of Sprint would very likely be presumptively anticompetitive. We are concerned that this consolidation would increase prices, reduce incentives to offer new plans, and allow the remaining carriers to curtail their investment in their networks. Further, given both companies’ focus on competing for lower-income customers, the combination of Sprint and T-Mobile could disproportionately harm those consumers. In addition to potentially raising retail prices, the remaining carriers are also likely to increase prices to companies like Straight Talk, which buys bulk access to one or more of the four national carriers and advertises almost exclusively to lower-income communities.

T-Mobile and Sprint will no doubt claim that the merger will leave sufficient competition, increase cost savings, and spur investment. The agencies will need to examine these issues in depth and make the ultimate determination as to whether the effect of such a deal would be to undermine or promote competition. The very complexity of the issues only further justifies the need for the agencies to begin examining the markets and investigating the competitive dynamics sooner rather than later.

Initiating an investigation is appropriate

Although the antitrust agencies often wait for an official filing before opening an investigation, nothing requires this delay. For example, in May, the Antitrust Division announced an investigation of the possible acquisition of the Chicago Sun-Times by the owner of the Chicago Tribune.  The two companies in question here have had a longstanding interest in combining, and, according to reports, an agreement between Sprint and T-Mobile may be weeks away.

Beginning an investigation into a merger of T-Mobile and Sprint now will allow your agencies to quickly, but fully, review the agreement if it is announced. Indeed, multiple news sources are reporting that the two parties are close to a deal in principle. The likelihood of the transaction occurring combined with the serious issues that it raises provide compelling reason for DOJ and the Federal Communication Commission to begin investigating the potential transaction.

For the reasons stated above, we urge you to begin to examine this potential transaction now. Competition among four major cell phone carriers has benefited consumers with lower prices, better service, and more innovation. We are concerned that consolidation will thwart those goals. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Sincerely,

Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)
Al Franken (D-Minn.)
Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.)
Ron Wyden (D-Ore.)
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)
Ed Markey (D-Mass.)
Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

T-Mobile Makes Deal With FOX Television to Relocate Channels to Boost Cell Coverage

WWOR advertises itself as My 9, but the station actually transmits over UHF channel 38 and will move to channel 25 early next year.

T-Mobile today announced a partnership with FOX Television Stations to hasten channel relocation to make room for the wireless carrier’s expansion of wireless service in the 600MHz spectrum it won at auction.

As part of the agreement, FOX-owned WWOR-TV in Secaucus, N.J., will vacate its current digital UHF channel 38 in early 2018, over a year sooner than originally planned. The station will move to UHF channel 25, but most viewers will still find the channel on virtual channel 9. T-Mobile will then bring new cell service online in metropolitan New York where WWOR’s signal used to be.

T-Mobile is aggressively trying to bring its valued 600MHz spectrum online as quickly as possible because it offers the carrier and its customers expanded coverage and better reception in indoor locations. Although the FCC has set an August 2019 deadline for stations to vacate and move their channels to make way for improved cell service, T-Mobile is offering incentives to get broadcasters to make the move well before that deadline.

Earlier this year, PBS and America’s Public Television Stations announced a similar partnership with T-Mobile. The wireless carrier has offered to pay the costs for a significant number of rural TV translators to move to new channel positions to make room for T-Mobile’s cell expansion.

“We’re committed to working with broadcasters across the country to clear 600MHz spectrum, so we can preserve programming and bring increased wireless choice and competition across the country,” said Neville Ray, chief technology officer at T-Mobile.

Working with the low power television outlets is a win-win solution for T-Mobile and the stations, because some budget-constrained stations may be required to change channel positions at least twice. There are concerns that the diminishing UHF TV dial may not have room to accommodate every TV station that wants to remain on the air.

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Recent Comments:

  • Doug: So what are they (Charter Spectrum) supposed to do? Continue repairing the sabotage? Pay for "protection?" I am certain that those customers whose ...
  • tony russo: Promo with TWC ending this week. Had Starter TV (25 channels) plus Turbo internet for $65 total. Called to see what is available and the lowest tv p...
  • FredH: ....talk about flimsy (or no) evidence.....good luck Charter, wasting our cable fees on a lawsuit they stand no chance of winning....
  • Will: I have to agree with ATT here... Can't blame cord cutters when it's just that ATT's video service is awful and customers are fleeing at the first oppo...
  • kaniki: I really do not see much changing on the Tmobile end of things.. Sprint does not have much coverage outside of Tmobiles right now, so, Tmobile would g...
  • kaniki: I would have to disagree with the "cable company" part.. I would like to see someone, more like google, get them, then a cable company.. Most cable co...
  • MAD DOG: Company really losing customers. What a shame I like it better when the Dolan was running the show. It was like a family company....
  • LG: This is what happens when you charge $150-$300 for TV. People have better things to spend their money on. TV in general is losing viewers after deca...
  • Josh: Good for them! Don't know that $500/day is remotely reasonable (how about $500,000/day?) but regardless good for them....
  • BobInIllinois: DirecTV is a great premium TV service. Downside is that consumers are looking to cut expenses, and they think that streaming can do that. Most consu...
  • EJ: If you don't pay they will more then likely turn it into collections and it will affect your credit. The better move is to pay them again, send a canc...
  • EJ: I think someone put a decimal point in the wrong spot lol?!...

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