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AT&T Lays Foundation to Ditch DirecTV Satellite and U-verse TV in Favor of Online Streaming

Phillip Dampier November 14, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video, Rural Broadband 3 Comments

In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will be delivering television programming to its DirecTV and U-verse TV customers over the internet instead of satellite or the variant of DSL its U-verse product uses.

Appearing at Morgan Stanley’s European Technology, Media and Telecom Conference, AT&T chief financial officer John Stephens told investors AT&T will be able to slash costs of television delivery by eventually retiring satellite service and rolling its U-verse TV into a single, self-installed, DirecTV set-top box product that will rely on broadband.

“It’s a device that allows us to, instead of rolling a truck to the home, we roll a UPS or FedEx truck to the home and deliver a self-install box,” Stephens said. “This allows the customer to use their own broadband. We certainly hope it’s our own fiber but it could be on anybody’s broadband. And they get the full-service premium package that we would normally deliver off satellite or over our IP-based U-verse service.”

AT&T employees are currently beta testing the new box and the company hopes to begin rolling it out to subscribers in 2019. Assuming they respond positively to the online streaming experience, AT&T will begin transitioning DirecTV customers away from its existing satellite platform and towards internet delivery. Stephens said the benefits are obvious: no more installers, roof-top satellite dishes, and service calls to deal with signal problems.

“The key is, as we roll that out to full production or full availability to our customers, you will see subscriber acquisition costs come down significantly because it’s the cost of that box as opposed to the cost of an employee rolling a truck, climbing the roof and installing the satellite [dish],” Stephens added.

The transition to less costly delivery platforms may be just in time for AT&T, which saw historically large subscriber losses on its DirecTV satellite platform. Other providers reported significant losses as well, demonstrating cord-cutting is a growing trend in the pay television industry. DirecTV’s expensive fleet of satellites carry not only nationally distributed networks but hundreds of local television stations beamed regionally to customers. The economics of satellite television may become questionable if customers continue moving away from linear, live television. Internet delivery services are much less costly and offer more robust on-demand viewing options.

Rural Americans may face the consequences of any transition. They are least likely to have suitable broadband service capable of supporting DirecTV’s streaming video service and could lose access to television altogether if AT&T (and Dish) retire their satellite fleets. That may be a small concern to AT&T, which has 25 million subscribers, the vast majority of which have access to broadband internet.

AT&T and Verizon Reneging on Free Phone Deals; Customers Worn Out by Broken Promises

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2018 AT&T, Consumer News, Verizon, Video, Wireless Broadband No Comments

Wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have reneged on promotions offering customers free phones and “buy one, get one free” deals that leave customers on the hook for hundreds of dollars in equipment charges.

With the holiday shopping season about to begin, phone promotions will be heavily advertised. But those deals may be too good to be true, according to consumer protection groups.

The Better Business Bureau said the problems customers are reporting are serious, and growing. Since the beginning of this year, BBB president (Southern Piedmont) Tom Bartholomy said the group has received almost 6,800 complaints about wireless provider advertising, sales, and promotional practices.

“We’re talking hundreds of complaints about a similar type of situation,” Bartholomy told WSOC-TV. “[It] points to an underlying cause, an underlying concern, with those types of promotions.”

WSOC’s consumer reporter has been inundated with complaints from his North Carolina viewers about broken promises:

Rachel Seighman lives in Monroe. She said, “(I) wanted to try to get a cheaper plan for my family. So, I tried AT&T out.”  She said she got her bill and “it was going to be about $60 higher per month than they said.” So, she called AT&T.  “I was told that the price they quoted me at was not correct,” she said.

Cynthia Emrich lives in Stanfield. She took advantage of an AT&T “buy one, get one free” offer for a Samsung phone. But, she said AT&T charged her for both phones.  “So I call them and they said it would straighten itself out, and it never did,” she told Action 9.  She said she called the company every month for 2 1/2 years. “It was frustrating every month.”

Denise Reid lives in Fort Mill. She said she went with a Verizon “buy one, get one free” deal for an iPhone, but that the company charged her full price.  “They could not give me a reason as to why,” she said.  “No reason as to why.”

Joseph Mayberry lives in Hickory. He told Action 9 a similar story. All four customers said they tried to resolve things on their own but couldn’t. “I would call someone.  I would go through the long story of what happened.  I would get to the supervisor level.  I’ve got emails saying I would be credited back and a phone call would follow.  Never got the phone call,” Mayberry said.

Many customers are tripped up by the fine print in promotional offers that frequently contain complicated conditions and opaque language. Some insist company representatives assured them that the promotion was valid only to find out later they were misled. In fact many promotions contain strict provisions that, if not followed precisely, invalidate the promotion.

Here are some common tricks and fine print traps you may encounter getting your “free” phone:

  1. Many “Buy 1, Get 1” promotions require the customer to activate and maintain a new line of service to qualify for a free phone, which can cost nearly $50 a month for a plan, including additional surcharges and taxes. Customers that fail to follow through on this condition or quickly terminate the extra line after moving the device to a different line on their account were often charged full price for both phones.
  2. Some promotions require customers to sign up for a “device payment agreement” to qualify for the free phone. That is actually a contract to pay off a device with monthly installment payments at 0% interest billed to your mobile account. The free device promotion is often tied to the payment agreement. If a customer buys the first phone and pays for it upfront there is no payment agreement, and no free phone. Some promotions require customers to maintain a device payment agreement for up to 30 months. If a customer violates any terms of the promotion, such as paying the phone off early or selling it, the company might bill you for the “free” phone.
  3. Some companies take months to begin crediting your account for the monthly installments that will appear on your bill. Customers will eventually see a monthly device payment charge and a corresponding credit in the same amount for your “free” phone. But until bill credits start to appear in 60-90 days, you are responsible for the installment charges.
  4. “Free” phone promotions often conflict with other service plans and features. Customers that have signed up to receive a new phone every two years may have to turn in their “free” phone and walk away from several delayed reimbursement credits before getting they can obtain their next new device.

Many customers underestimate the true cost of complying with the terms necessary to get that “free” phone. That realization usually comes too late to return it, leaving customers with several hundred dollars in equipment fees — a costly mistake that could ruin any holiday.

It is important to carefully study the terms and conditions of all wireless device promotions. The written contract is valid, promises from overeager salespeople are not. Be wary when you see “device payment agreement” or “activate and maintain a new line of service,” or “promo credit applied to account over 24 mos w/in 1-2 billing cycles; promo credit ends when balance paid or line terminated/transferred.” If you do, it could mean you will need to set up an installment payment plan for that “free” phone, keep it on your account as a new line of service for at least two years, and avoid paying it off in advance or attempt to move the phone to a different account or provider.

If negotiating with your provider has failed to resolve a conflict over the promotion, taking your case to the media over the terms of a possibly deceptive promotion can be effective in getting what you thought you were promised. When these customers contacted WSOC-TV and the station took the complaints back to AT&T and Verizon, the company quickly gave all four customers their free phones.

“Nobody would listen to me until [WSOC] actually reached out to them. And then within two hours, I got a phone call from AT&T,” Emrich told the station.  “If it wasn’t for Action 9, I would have never got that refund.”

AT&T claimed in a statement it honors all of its deals. Verizon tried to refer complaints about its promotions to the wireless industry lobbying group — CTIA. That group does not understand why Verizon did that and claims it isn’t familiar with cell phone promotions. Neither are most consumers.

WSOC-TV consumer reporter Jason Stoogenke investigates cell phone promotions that sound too good to be true. (3:36)

Verizon pulled out of a promo for a free iPhone for this North Carolina customer. Nobody knows why. (1:16)

Verizon messed up a promotion offering two phones for the price of one and left this customer out in the cold, telling him he needed to pay full price for both phones. (1:14)

VIDEO: Dividing Lines – Dialed Back to Dial-Up in Rural America

From the producers of Dividing Lines:

The online world is no longer a distinct world. It is an extension of our social, economic, and political lives. Internet access, however, is still a luxury good. Millions of Americans have been priced out of, or entirely excluded from, the reach of modern internet networks. Maria Smith, an affiliate of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and Harvard Law School, created Dividing Lines to highlight these stark divides, uncover the complex web of political and economic forces behind them, and challenge audiences to imagine a future in which quality internet access is as ubiquitous as electricity.

This is the first part of a series being deployed by organizations and community leaders across the country, from San Francisco to Nashville to Washington, D.C., in an effort to educate stakeholders and catalyze policymaking that elevates the interests of the people over the interests of a handful of corporations.

The fight for rural broadband in Tennessee pits a publicly owned electric utility against Comcast and AT&T and their allies in the state legislature. (5:25)

AT&T Cuts Off DirecTV Competitor Dish from HBO and Cinemax; DoJ Claims Vindication

Phillip Dampier November 6, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Dish Network, Online Video, Sling 1 Comment

More than 2.5 million HBO and Cinemax customers are blacked out after AT&T cut off its biggest satellite rival Dish Networks and streaming provider Sling TV in a dispute the Department of Justice claims confirms its concerns that AT&T’s merger with Time Warner (Entertainment) would be bad for consumers.

It is the first time HBO has faced a contract renewal blackout on any platform in its 46-year history. But some groups feel it was predictable, considering AT&T owns DirecTV, Dish’s biggest rival. AT&T acquired HBO’s parent company, Time Warner (Entertainment) in 2018, changing its name to WarnerMedia. Last summer, Judge Richard J. Leon, senior district judge on the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia gave AT&T approval of that $85 billion merger deal with no conditions, scoffing at Department of Justice claims that the merger would give AT&T undue market power that could be used to threaten competitors by depriving them access to popular cable networks and content or use of those networks in marketing materials to attract new subscribers.

As the DoJ pursues an appeal of Judge Leon’s decision, this week’s blackout seems to add ammunition to the government’s case against the merger.

“This behavior, unfortunately, is consistent with what the Department of Justice predicted would result from the merger,” a DoJ representative told Reuters. “We are hopeful the Court of Appeals will correct the errors of the District Court.”

A statement from Dish Networks harmoniously echoed the government’s position.

“Plain and simple, the merger created for AT&T immense power over consumers,” said Andy LeCuyer, senior vice president of programming at Dish, in a statement. “It seems AT&T is implementing a new strategy to shut off its recently acquired content from other distributors.”

Consumer groups like Public Knowledge also agree.

“In opposing the AT&T/Time Warner deal, opponents — including the Department of Justice — predicted that the newly combined company would have the incentive to withhold content, and would gain stronger leverage in negotiations like this one, ” said John Bergmayer, senior counsel at Public Knowledge. “AT&T stands to benefit if customers, frustrated by missing their favorite HBO shows, leave DISH to switch to DirecTV. Time Warner, as an independent company, did not have the incentive to hold out on HBO content in these situations before the merger. Now, consumers are the ones paying the price.”

Dish is accusing AT&T of demanding the satellite service pay for a guaranteed number of subscribers, regardless of how many consumers actually want to subscribe to HBO.

“AT&T is stacking the deck with free-for-life offerings to wireless customers and slashed prices on streaming services, effectively trying to force Dish to subsidize HBO on AT&T’s platforms,” said LeCuyer. “This is the exact anticompetitive behavior that critics of the AT&T-Time Warner merger warned us about. Every pay-TV company should be concerned. Rather than trying to force consumers onto their platforms, we suggest that AT&T try to achieve its financial goals through simple economics: if consumers want your product, they’ll pay for it. We hope AT&T will reconsider its demands and help us reach a swift, fair resolution.”

On its face, the nationwide blackout of HBO and Cinemax on America’s second largest satellite TV provider could be a public relations disaster for AT&T, depriving customers from accessing premium movie networks for the first time. But AT&T is fighting back in a coordinated media pushback.

In its defense, HBO is claiming Dish was not negotiating in good faith. Simon Sutton, HBO’s president and chief revenue officer: “Dish’s proposals and actions made it clear they never intended to seriously negotiate an agreement.”

“Past behavior shows that removing services from their customers is becoming all too common a negotiating tactic for them,” echoed AT&T.

“The Department of Justice collaborated closely with Dish in its unsuccessful lawsuit to block our merger,” a WarnerMedia spokesman said in a statement. “That collaboration continues to this day with Dish’s tactical decision to drop HBO – not the other way around. DoJ failed to prove its claims about HBO at trial and then abandoned them on appeal.”

As always, customers are caught in the middle. For now. AT&T and HBO are telling consumers to drop their Dish subscriptions and stream HBO and Cinemax online directly from their respective streaming platforms, or find another provider. Dish has told its satellite and Sling TV customers they will be credited on their bill for time they do not receive HBO or Cinemax. Dish is also offering customers a free preview of HDNET Movies.

Oral arguments for the DoJ’s appeal are scheduled to begin Dec. 6. Court documents revealed today the judges that will hear the appeal are: Judith W. Rogers, Robert L. Wilkins, and David B. Sentelle.

AT&T Pulls Plug on Turner Classic Movies/Warner Bros.’ FilmStruck Streaming Service

Phillip Dampier October 29, 2018 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, Online Video 1 Comment

What began two years ago as the paid streaming service of Turner Classic Movies and grew into a highly respected catalog of 1,800 critically acclaimed films, has been axed by its new owner, AT&T, because it failed to attract a mainstream audience of subscribers.

FilmStruck was the five-star version of Netflix, a niche-streaming service that curated a vast collection of art house, international, independent, classic, and cult favorite films that was perceived by many critics as an essential treasure trove of films. Among the titles: “Casablanca,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Singin’ In the Rain,” “Citizen Kane,” “The Music Man,” “Bringing Up Baby,” “The Thin Man” and “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?” from Warner Bros. Other classics included: “Babette’s Feast,” “Blow Out,” “Boyhood,” “Breaker Morant,” “Chicago,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” “My Life as a Dog,” “Our Song,” “The Player,” “A Room with a View,” “Seven Samurai,” “The Seventh Seal,” “Thelma & Louise,” “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.”

Last Friday morning, subscribers received a disappointing email:

We regret to inform you that effective November 29, 2018, FilmStruck will be shutting down. As a subscriber currently on a monthly plan, effective immediately you will no longer be billed for FilmStruck and will continue to have access to the service until November 29.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank you for being a FilmStruck subscriber. It has been our pleasure sharing the best of indie, art house, and classic Hollywood with you. FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.

If you have any questions please visit our FAQs or email the FilmStruck customer service team at [email protected] You can also manage your account by clicking here.

Thank You,
The FilmStruck Team

Customers were informed all levels of the FilmStruck service were being discontinued. This included the FilmStruck Only Monthly package, the FilmStruck+Criterion Monthly package, the FilmStruck+Criterion Annual package, and the FilmStruck+Criterion Student package. Customers on annual plans will receive a pro-rated refund of the remaining term of their subscription.

“We’re incredibly proud of the creativity and innovations produced by the talented and dedicated teams who worked on FilmStruck over the past two years. While FilmStruck has a very loyal fanbase, it remains largely a niche service,” AT&T’s Turner and WB Digital Networks said in a statement. “We plan to take key learnings from FilmStruck to help shape future business decisions in the direct-to-consumer space and redirect this investment back into our collective portfolios.”

In fact, AT&T has been pressing hard to wring cost savings out of its multi-billion dollar acquisition of Time Warner, Inc., now known as WarnerMedia. AT&T has sent a clear message it will not be in the niche content business.

On Oct. 16, AT&T ordered the closure of DramaFever, a Warner Bros. subscription video on demand service offering Korean dramas.

Last week, the company also announced it was pulling the plug on Super Deluxe, a Millennial-targeted content producer that claimed to reach 52 million 18-34 year olds, with 165 million views across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram. AT&T called Super Deluxe “duplicative.”

The first sign that AT&T intended to be aggressive about changing Time Warner’s media businesses took place at a June “town hall” meeting with new HBO executive John Stankey, when employees learned AT&T was impatient with its newly acquired premium movie channel. Stankey made clear AT&T was gunning to push for major changes at HBO, pulling away from a decades-old format showing movies repeated a dozen times a month and a handful of very expensive, but award-winning TV series. The future of AT&T’s HBO will be closer to a Netflix competitor, releasing enough new shows and original content to attract mainstream audience viewing for several hours a day. To make this possible, AT&T will have to provide HBO with a bigger budget, funded in part from money transferred away from services like FilmStruck.

AT&T sources have leaked word that the company will eliminate most of Time Warner/WarnerMedia’s projects that are not proven major producers of revenue to fulfill promises to Wall Street that AT&T’s acquisition will eventually result in substantial financial growth for investors.

The Criterion Collection

FilmStruck subscribers and some Hollywood critics feel blindsided by the decision to shutter the streaming service. New Yorker author Richard Brody minced no words — “Nothing but contempt for the Mr. Potters who are shutting down FilmStruck,” Brody wrote in a scathing opinion piece.

Among consumers, disgust over the decision ranged from shock from Turner Classic Movies fans over AT&T’s decision to shut down a service showing movies not mired in violence, sex, and immorality, to film buffs disillusioned with Hollywood’s mainstream commercial films left furious over the abandonment of a central depository of independent, high quality cinema.

AT&T believes the next generation of streaming will be much less about putting together collections of old movies or producing niche, low-budget movies and series to appeal to the Netflix crowd. Instead, the next war will be fought over high-budget, high-expectation mainstream movies and series streamed on premium subscription services. WarnerMedia will launch its own paid streaming service in 2019. It will face similar paid services launching late next year from some of America’s largest media conglomerates, including Disney. Among Disney’s planned original productions for its forthcoming service, new episodes of the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a new, premium budget live-action Star Wars series from Jungle Book and Iron Man director Jon Favreau, and shows based on both the High School Musical and Monsters, Inc. franchises.

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