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Cox’s Data Limbo Dance: Slashes “Ultimate” Allowance in Half, Lies About Why

Cox's data plan limbo dance. How low can they go?

Cox’s data plan limbo dance. How low can they go?

Cox Communications has cut by half the data usage allowance of one of its fastest broadband plans targeting so-called “heavy users,” exposing unsuspecting customers to expensive overlimit fees, while claiming usage caps are now mandated by law.

Stop the Cap! reader John C. wrote to tell us he discovered his allowance for Cox’s “Ultimate” Plan, delivering 200/20Mbps, has been slashed from 2,000GB to 1,000GB, with little warning except in an obscure support FAQ.

“About 95% of Cox customers are currently on a data plan that more than adequately meets the monthly needs of their household,” Cox claimed. “However, some households, particularly those with multiple Internet users that enjoy streaming TV or movies, may want to select an Internet package with a larger data plan. That is why we offer plans for all types of users so you can choose what is best for your household.”

The plan that most customers want is a flat rate, unlimited-use plan, one that Cox has unilaterally decided to stop offering. Just as bad: targeting the most widely available premium plan for a major usage allowance cut with no explanation whatsoever. It’s bad news for John, who says after paying Cox their asking price for Ultimate service, he cannot afford to also pay overage fees on top of that (currently $10 for each 50GB allotment, charged only in the Cleveland, Oh. area for now).

Customers who contact Cox and complain about their usage caps or allowance changes are being told false fables by Cox’s customer service specialists, who claim data caps are now the law in the United States.

Here is an example of an actual support session with Cox employees, (emphasis ours, edited (…) for brevity):

cox say noYou: I also learned that you have internet data cap?

Jenna: Data limits were implemented by the FCC in 2011. By law, we have to have them. If you exceed the limit for 3 consecutive months, you will be contacted to discuss your options for upgrading.

You: FCC? can you send me details about that

[…]

Jenna: As I mentioned, there’s no fee for exceeding those limits. If you exceed the limit for 3 consecutive months, you will be contacted to discuss your options for upgrading. You can save a copy of this chat transcript for your records if you wish.

Jenna: I can also get you over to Customer Care for more information.

You: so why would you mention FCC rules then?

Jenna: Because you asked about our data limits.

Jenna: That’s why we have them.

You: Sure so can you tell me what FCC rule from 2011 you are referrind to?

Jenna: Sure, I’ll get you the link to the FCC website.

[…]

Jenna: Sure thing. Allow me a moment to get you over to Customer Care chat for further information about our Data Caps policies, and why we have them.

[…]

Christian O.: I see, well our Internet packages have a data usage limit however if you exceed that limit we won’t downgrade your speed or restrict your access to Internet or charge you more.

Christian O.: I think I found some information on the date usage and the FCC on 2011. One moment, please.

You: but it says right there that you will cahrge $10 for 50GB after I reach data cap

You: And FCC is very strict about data caps

Christian O.: Give me a moment to check something.

You: ok thanks

Christian O.: If you exceed your data plan, Cox may notify you by email to alert you. Your service will not be interrupted if you choose to stay on your existing package except in the rare cases of excessive usage. In those extremely rare situations, Cox may suspend service after attempting to resolve the issue.

Christian O.: Cox is conducting a limited data usage trial in Cleveland, Ohio. In all other markets, Cox does not currently charge additional fees if your data plan is exceeded.

You: what you are doing with data caps / usage is illegal

You: But please send me the FCC rule from 2011 that Jenna and you mention

You: “Jenna: Data limits were implemented by the FCC in 2011. By law, we have to have them.”

Christian O.: I don’t have such rule that talks about that. Do you have the rule where it says that is illegal?

Christian O.: Just asking.

[…]

Christian O.: Honestly I don’t have any idea about the rule that Jenna was speaking about. Let me go ask my supervisor. One moment, please.

[…]

Christian O.: Unfortunately we couldn’t find any information about that rule established by the FCC.

To clarify, the FCC neither has rules for or against data caps. It has remained neutral on the subject, although FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler recently advocated imposing a moratorium on data caps or usage billing for up to seven years as a condition of approving Charter Communications’ acquisitions of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Here are Cox’s current data plans, which are effective for all residential customers. However, only customers in Cleveland will face penalties for exceeding them at this time.

Package Monthly Included Data Speeds

Download / Upload

Starter 200 GB 5 Mbps / 1 Mbps
Essential 250 GB 15 Mbps / 2 Mbps
Preferred 350 GB 50 Mbps / 5 Mbps
Premier 700 GB 100 Mbps / 10 Mbps
Ultimate 1000 GB 200 Mbps / 20 Mbps
Gigablast (Where Available) 2000 GB 1 Gbps / 1 Gbps

Cox Upgrading to Fiber-to-the-Node, DOCSIS 3.1 Broadband Platform

COX_RES_RGBCox Communications will push broadband speed upgrades as high as a gigabit to customers over an upgraded network heavy on fiber and much lighter on copper coaxial cable.

In an effort to stay competitive and reduce operational and maintenance costs, Cox will begin major upgrades of its cable plant, removing as much copper and as many signal amplifiers as possible to simplify upkeep and make future upgrades simpler.

Cox chief technology officer Kevin Hart told Light Reading he wants to push fiber optics deeper into Cox’s network, bringing optical fiber closer to the neighborhoods where customers live and work. This will allow Cox to reduce the number of customers sharing the same bandwidth. It also eases Cox’s forthcoming upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 technology.

“We’re […] taking fiber deeper as a part of our multi-year network transformation plan, working towards a node-plus-zero architecture that allows us to take fiber to the home, and allows us to bring gigabit speeds on demand. And of course we’re aligning around DOCSIS 3.1,” Hart said.

Cox is planning its first rollout of DOCSIS 3.1, which gives cable companies to ability to offer gigabit download speeds, in the fourth quarter of this year. It will choose one of the smaller communities it serves as a test market. If all goes well, Cox will push DOCSIS 3.1 across all of its markets between 2017-2020, likely focusing on Phoenix and San Diego first.

Cox is evaluating DOCSIS 3.1 cable modems from a number of vendors, with Arris and Technicolor likely contenders.

Cox continues to support data caps and usage-based billing in some of its markets and has become one of the stingiest with data allowances:

Package Usage Cap Speeds
Download / Upload
Starter 150 GB 5 Mbps / 1 Mbps
Essential 250 GB 15 Mbps / 2 Mbps
Preferred 350 GB 50 Mbps / 5 Mbps
Premier 700 GB 100 Mbps / 10 Mbps
Ultimate 2000 GB 200 Mbps / 20 Mbps
Gigablast (Where Available) 2000 GB 1 Gbps / 1 Gbps

Customers in Cleveland, Ohio are the unluckiest of all, because they also face an overlimit fee when they exceed their allowance: $10 for each additional 50GB block of data. Some customers in Cleveland’s downtown area have found a loophole around the data cap, however. If they access the Internet over Cox WiFi and Cable WiFi hotspots, it does not count against one’s allowance at this time.

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.”

Patrick “The Slasher” Drahi Maneuvers for Blitz Buyout of American Cable Companies

Drahi

Drahi

After failing in a surprise bid to acquire Time Warner Cable out from under Charter Communications, European cable magnate Patrick Drahi has spent much of this summer quietly working to make sure that never happens again.

The French press is buzzing over Drahi’s decision to move his corporate headquarters from the business friendly Grand Duchy of Luxembourg — nestled between Belgium, France, and Germany — north to the Netherlands. The move is mostly on paper — attorneys drafted the agreement that effectively transferred Altice SA to Drahi’s Dutch subsidiary Altice NV and shareholders approved.

Why move the company from one of Europe’s most business-friendly countries to Holland, a country with a long history of corporate oversight? It wasn’t for the stroopwafels.

The Netherlands is rare among most European countries because it allows corporations to set up “dual-class share structures.” That means nothing to 99% of Dutch citizens and the majority of our readers, but it means a lot if you are a billionaire running a hungry multi-national corporation using other people’s money to gain control of companies on your acquisition list.

Altice1With the move, Drahi can embark on a breathtaking acquisition spree without diluting the control he has over his growing cable empire. Going forward, Altice will apply different voting rights to various classes of stock offered to investors. Drahi now holds 58.5% of Altice stock. But his shares are special because they grant him 92% of the voting power. Other shareholders will find they are not entitled to an equal say in how the public company is run.

Altice admitted to regulators they designed the new share structure to give Mr. Drahi greater flexibility for financing and corporate transactions without threatening his control of the company. Altice called that “a value-enhancing strategy without diluting voting control.” This means Drahi can offer generous amounts of Altice stock to help fund future takeover deals without worrying that will reduce his control over the company.

If Drahi were to recklessly launch a spending spree of epic proportions to the consternation of shareholders, there will be little recourse and almost no chance of a shareholder revolt. But just to make sure, Drahi gets to pick six of Altice’s eight board members. He also won an agreement with board members who also hold shares in Altice granting him absolute and automatic support of all his proposals for 30 years. On top of that, he is entitled to “negative control” over the board, which means in any vote, he is allowed to cast a number of votes equal to all other board members.

vampireWith generous grants of authority like these passing muster, it’s no wonder executives of corporations around the world are urging consideration to move the corporate headquarters to the land of tulips and windmills. Fiat Chrysler already did, at the behest of Italy’s Agnelli family, which controls the Italian-American car company with a tight grip. Mylan, a producer of generic pharmaceutical drugs, managed to fend off Israeli rival Teva Pharmaceuticals, using Holland’s tolerance of executive-friendly poison pill maneuvers to keep unfriendly takeover artists away.

Now that the move to an Amsterdam post office box is complete, Drahi is in the process of rearming his war chest for another assault on the American mainland. The French newspaper l’Humanité warns it is more conniving from the “telecom vampire” that sucked the blood out of competitive cable in France. The newspaper cited deregulation and privatization to be great for billionaires like Drahi, but a bad deal for consumers.

Since the 1990s, telecom executives in Europe and North America have promised regulators a lot in return for deregulation and self-oversight. Allowing companies a free rein would stimulate competition and private investment to finance and construct next generation networks, they claimed.

But l’Humanité uncovered another motivation for telecom magnates like Drahi: to get filthy rich. The newspaper quotes one well-known anecdote about why Drahi got into the cable business — because after studying Forbes articles ranking the fortunes of the 1%, Drahi set his sights on the industry where there were the most billionaires – telecommunications.

moneyKeeping that newly privatized and deregulated wealth requires ruthlessness for others but protection for your allies and yourself. Drahi followed the teachings of American cable magnate John Malone (who is Charter Communications’ biggest shareholder today) and began a debt-fueled buying spree of independent cable systems, quickly followed by ruthless cost-cutting at the acquired companies, earning him the nickname “The Slasher,” among others less charitable. His critics say he has a lot of nerve, because in many instances Drahi billed the companies he acquired for consulting and management fees. BFM Business reports Drahi has only one bottom line when making up his mind: how much generated cash will come from the decision.

The real money would start rolling in at the height of the dot.com boom. Regulators accepted a bid by Drahi and two of his allies to create the fourth French telecom operator — a wireless venture known as Fortel. The three men promised to invest more than $3 billion building the network, an amount called “not credible” by some regulators and a number of industry leaders. But since the frequencies went to those who promised the most investment, Fortel won. Drahi was named president of the company.

Just before the dot.com bubble burst and Fortel seemed to be wavering, Drahi sold many of his interests to UPC, a European cable conglomerate owned by his mentor John Malone. In early 2001, the wireless project was scrapped and Fortel itself was sold for scrap, never to build the promised network. But by then, Drahi was working at UPC with Malone on a massive cable industry acquisition and consolidation strategy. During his career at UPC, Drahi was in charge of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire French cable operators including: RCF, Time Warner Cable France, Rhone Cable Vision, and Videopole InterComm.

UPC declared bankruptcy in 2002.

UPC declared bankruptcy in 2002.

Malone’s company quickly became overextended and very deep in debt when they suddenly stopped paying creditors in the fall of 2002. But before that happened, Drahi once again had the good fortune to cash out of UPC before the roof collapsed, selling his own Médiaréseaux cable system to Malone’s company at full value just before UPC went bankrupt. The bankruptcy that followed didn’t hurt Malone much and Drahi not at all.

Unwilling to rescue UPC’s faltering operations before bankruptcy, Malone waited until after the cable company went Chapter 11, when 65% of its debt was erased in court proceedings in return for a $99.8 million fresh infusion of cash from UGC/Liberty Media — another Malone-controlled venture that suddenly emerged with a checkbook. That bought Malone’s Liberty Media a 65.5% stake in the rescued company. Vendors, smaller debtors, and other shareholders fared far worse. Most received little, if any of the money owed them, and the remaining shareholders were given just 2% ownership of the company after it emerged from bankruptcy.

Drahi re-emerged on the French business scene after squirreling away his UPC cable proceeds in his new venture Altice, originally launched in Luxembourg, listed on the Amsterdam stock exchange, and controlled by another holding company owned by Drahi housed in the British tax haven of the Channel Islands. Drahi himself was, for a time, a Swiss resident domiciled in Canton Zermatt, another tax haven with tax thresholds that favor the super-wealthy. Drahi now qualifies.

Within four years of Altice’s existence, the company has acquired 99% of France’s cable systems. Drahi has since looked abroad to consummate more deals.

When an Israeli cable system became available to buy, Drahi suddenly became a citizen of Israel and rented an apartment in the country, mostly to meet Israel’s citizenship requirements to acquire the HOT cable system. After the sale was complete, HOT raised its rates, most recently by 20 percent.

Le Echos, a French newspaper, has watched Drahi plow his way through French telecommunications for several years and summed up Drahi’s acquisition strategy in three words: It’s never enough.

The newspaper suspects Drahi will continue using the same techniques he has used in France for the last 20 years to create an empire in the United States. He will take on massive amounts of debt and use Wall Street and French investment banks to pay for most of his acquisitions, combined with generous shares in Altice stock for shareholders and top corporate executives. With Altice’s relocation complete, Drahi can make generous offers his targets cannot refuse, even when they are privately owned.

To start an American cable empire, Drahi will have to acquire smaller cable operators to build leverage for potential takeovers of larger operators later. His ability to throw massive sums of money on the table makes it very likely his next targets will be Cox Communications and Cablevision — both controlled by families that have held on in the cable business despite years of tentative acquisition offers or sales explorations. Both Cox and Cablevision offer access to larger U.S. cities. Other likely targets, including Mediacom, Cable One, and Midcontinent Communications, don’t. He can digest those companies later.

On June 24, Drahi told his fellow dinner guests at the Polytechnique Foundation, “For me, telecom is like pinball,” Drahi said. “As long as there are balls, I will play.”

ConnectHome: President Obama Announces Affordable Broadband Options for the Poor

google fiberWASHINGTON/DURANT, Okla. (Reuters) – U.S. President Barack Obama announced a pilot project on Wednesday aimed at expanding broadband access for people who live in public housing, part of an effort to close what Obama called the “digital divide” between rich and poor.

Eight Internet service providers, including Google Inc and Sprint Corp, have signed on to make the Internet cheaper and more accessible in 27 cities and the Choctaw Tribal Nation in Durant, Oklahoma.

Private and public institutions have pledged to invest $70 million in the plan. The federal government is only contributing $50,000, Julian Castro, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development, told reporters on a conference call.

The initiative will reach 275,000 households with almost 200,000 children.

centurylink“While high-speed Internet access is given for millions of Americans, it’s out of reach for far too many,” Obama said at Durant High School to a crowd that included many children in traditional tribal garb.

The Choctaw Tribal Nation is working with four local providers to bring the Internet to 425 homes.

In Atlanta, Durham, Kansas City and Nashville, Google will provide free Internet connections in some public housing areas.

COX_RES_RGBIn select markets, Sprint will offer free wireless broadband access to families with kids in public housing. In Seattle, CenturyLink Inc will provide broadband service for public housing residents for $9.95 a month for the first year.

Cox Communications Inc [COXC.UL] is offering home Internet for $9.95 a month to families with kids in school in four cities in Georgia, Louisiana and Connecticut.

The program also includes free training and technical support. Best Buy Co Inc will offer free training to the Choctaw Tribal Nation and in some cities, the White House said.

(By Alex Wilts and Julia Edwards; Reporting by Alex Wilts and Roberta Rampton; Editing by Alan Crosby and Lisa Shumaker)

Frontier Runs America’s Worst Website: Dead Last in 2015 Web Experience Ratings

frontier frankFrontier Communications scored dead last in a nationwide survey of websites run by 262 companies — ranked for their usability, helpfulness, and competence.

The “2015 Web Experience Ratings,” conducted by the Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting firm, looked at how customers feel about companies based on experiences visiting their websites. The firm wanted to know whether customers would forgive a company if its website proved less than satisfactory. The answer appears to be no, and phone and cable companies were the most likely to experience the wrath of dissatisfied customers.

“It’s ironic that many of the cable companies that provide Internet service earned such poor ratings,” Bruce Temkin, managing partner of Temkin Group, said.

Most household name cable companies did especially poor in the survey. Time Warner Cable, Comcast and CenturyLink all tied at 252nd place (out of 262 firms). But special hatred was reserved for the website run by Frontier Communications, repeatedly called “incompetent” by consumers, especially after the phone company disabled most of the website’s self-service functions in late April. A well-placed source inside Frontier told Stop the Cap! the company could not manage to get its website ordering functions working properly and simply decided to give up, forcing customers to call instead.

Only 29% of consumers were willing to forgive a telecommunications company for a lousy web experience, according to the findings. Other website disasters were run by: Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Spirit Airlines, Blue Shield of CA, and Haier.

Which websites do consumers love the most? Temkin says USAA (a bank) and Amazon.com have traded the #1 and #2 spots for the last five years.

Stop the Cap! Still Collecting Names of Those Interested in Fighting Cox Usage Caps in Cleveland

wews coxThis weekend will end the first phase of our campaign to fight Cox usage caps being tested in Cleveland, Ohio. We’re collecting the names and e-mail addresses of interested citizens that would like to participate in the fight to get Cox to drop its usage-based billing and overlimit fee scheme. If you are interested, use the link at the top to “Contact Us” as a volunteer and include your name and a valid email address.

Next week we will have an initial outline for an action plan with hopes of building a team of Cleveland-area Cox customers to lead the fight. Local participation and involvement is essential to win these battles, and we will expect the city’s Internet enthusiasts to run this effort themselves, with support from Stop the Cap! It’s your fight to preserve your uncapped broadband, so please get involved!

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WEWS Cleveland Cox Changing Internet Service 5-19-15.mp4

WEWS in Cleveland ran a story on Cox’s usage caps and interviewed Stop the Cap! about why usage-based pricing is typically a giant ripoff for customers. (2:12)

Drahi Readies His Next Move: “If I Buy Five Smaller Cable Companies, I Am as Big as Time Warner Cable”

Drahi

Drahi

Patrick Drahi, the billionaire ruthless cost-cutting owner of Altice SA told a French parliamentary hearing he didn’t go ahead with a serious bid for Time Warner Cable because he lacked enough management talent to run a huge cable company in a country he only recently entered.

“I didn’t follow up on the exchanges we had on Time Warner Cable that were mentioned in the media because we were not ready,” Drahi told a French parliamentary hearing on Wednesday.

Drahi testified French-owned banks were ready to help finance a deal that would have stolen Time Warner Cable away from Charter Communications. Instead, Drahi has decided to spend a little time digesting his acquisition of Suddenlink to gain experience in the U.S. cable market before he moves on other cable operators. Drahi believes he will be the only buyer left to cut major cable consolidation deals.

“Time is on our side” for the U.S. expansion,” Drahi said. “The two leaders Comcast and Charter will not be able to buy anything else because of their size so we will have an open boulevard ahead of us. If I buy five small operators, I can be as big as Time Warner Cable.”

The five most-likely cable operators Drahi will pursue, according to a business editor at RFI, the French overseas broadcaster: Cablevision, Cox, Mediacom, WOW!, and Cable One. Cox and Mediacom are privately held and Cablevision is tightly controlled by its founding Dolan family, so Drahi will likely have to sweeten deals to convince all three to sell.

Reuters reports Drahi is especially interested in the smaller, less profitable operators because they are ripe for his brand of cost management and consolidation-related savings.

“Even better, that means we will have room to improve them,” Drahi said.

Drahi remained enthusiastic about Cablevision, despite the fact it serves one of the most competitive markets blanketed by Verizon FiOS in the United States.

“It’s good actually since it means they know how to compete,” Drahi said.

Drahi’s reputation is well-known in Europe based on his earlier acquisitions. Altice favors telecom and cable companies seen as poorly managed or undervalued which Drahi targets for massive cost-slashing to improve profitability. The investments he does make are largely to benefit high-end customers he values the most.

“The French Slasher” Patrick Drahi/Altice Likely to Target Cablevision, Cox, Mediacom Next for Quick Buyouts

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi's cost-cutting methods are legendary in Europe. He could soon be bringing his style of cost management to America.

THE FRENCH SLASHER: Patrick Drahi’s cost-cutting methods are legendary in Europe. He could soon be bringing his style of cost management to America.

Patrick Drahi and his Luxembourg-based Altice SA appears to be out of the running to buy Time Warner Cable, but are likely to quickly turn their attention to acquiring several of America’s remaining medium-sized cable companies: Cablevision, Cox, and Mediacom.

“While it is still possible that Altice counters on TWC, we do not believe that it can match Charter [and backer John Malone’s] funding firepower and will ultimately lose out,” wrote Macquarie Capital’s Kevin Smithen. “In our opinion, Altice is more likely to turn its attention to Cablevision or privately held Cox or Mediacom, in an effort to gain more fixed-line scale in order to compete against Charter and Comcast.”

Last week, cable analysts were surprised when Drahi swooped in to acquire Suddenlink, one of America’s medium-sized cable operators.

“Altice’s decision to buy Suddenlink (at an unsupportably high price) creates even more uncertainty in an industry where virtually every element of the story is now in flux,” said MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett.

Cablevision recently seemed to signal it was willing to talk a merger deal with Time Warner Cable, but that now seems unlikely with the Charter acquisition heading to regulator review. Drahi met last week with Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus about a possible deal with the second largest cable company in the U.S., which seems to indicate he is serious about his plans to enter the U.S. cable market.

“On paper, Cablevision was already overvalued,” Moffett said. “And Altice’s acquisition of Suddenlink, which has no overlap with Verizon FiOS, would suggest that they are quite cognizant of the appeal of a carrier without excessive fiber competition. The spike in Cablevision’s shares only makes that overvaluation worse. Then again, if Altice is willing to overpay for one investment, might they not be willing to overpay for another?”

Drahi has been topic number one for the French telecom press for months after his aggressive acquisition and cost-cutting strategies left a long trail of unpaid vendors and suppliers, as well as employees forced to bring their own toilet tissue to work. Customers have also started leaving his French cable company after service suffered as a result of his investment cuts.

As a new wave of cable consolidation is now on the minds of cable executives, several Wall Street analysts have begun to call on the cable industry to consolidate the wireless space as well, buying out one or more wireless companies like Sprint or T-Mobile to combine wired and wireless broadband.

“Unlike Europe, we continue to believe that the U.S. is not yet a ‘converged’ market for wireless and wireline broadband services but that this trend is inevitable in the U.S. due to increasing need for small cells, fiber backhaul and mobile video content caching closer to the end user. In our view, Altice believes in convergence and so mobile will be a strategic objective in the long-term,” Smithen wrote.

Other Wall Street analyst/helpers have pointed out there are other cable targets ripe for acquisition: WideOpenWest Holding Cos (a/k/a WOW!) and Cable One have a combined 1.92 million video subscribers.

Stop the Cap! Declares War on Cox’s Usage Cap Ripoff in Cleveland; It’s About the Money, Not Fairness

Stopping the money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stopping Cox’s money party from getting started, if we can help it.

Stop the Cap! today formally declares war on Cox’s usage cap experiment in Cleveland, Ohio and will coordinate several protest actions to educate consumers about the true nature of usage-based billing and how they can effectively fight back against these types of Internet Overcharging schemes.

Time Warner Cable quickly learned it was deeply mistaken telling customers that a 40GB monthly usage allowance was more than 95% of customers would ever need when introducing a similar concept April 1, 2009 in test markets including Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C. The company repeatedly suggested only about five percent of customers would ever exceed that cap.

Six years later, it is likely 95% of customers would be paying a higher broadband bill to cover applicable overlimit fees or be forced to upgrade to a more expensive plan to avoid them. Before Time Warner realized the errors of its way, it claimed with a straight face it was acceptable to charge customers $150 a month for the same unlimited broadband experience that used to cost $50.

Cox’s talking points for customers and the media frames usage caps as a fairness enforcement tool. It is a tired argument and lacks merit because nobody ever pays less for usage-capped broadband service. At best, you pay at least the same and risk new overlimit charges for exceeding an arbitrary usage allowance created out of thin air. At worst, you are forced by cost issues to downgrade service to a cheaper plan that comes with an even lower allowance and an even bigger risk of facing overlimit fees.

Industry trade journal Multichannel News, which covers the cable industry for the cable industry does not frame usage caps in the context of fairness. It’s all about the money.

“If you’re a cable operator, you might want to strike [with new usage caps] while the iron is hot,” said MoffettNathanson principal and senior analyst Craig Moffett, a Wall Street analyst and major proponent of investing in cable industry stocks.

Multichannel News warned operators they “must tread carefully in how they deliver the usage-based message.” Instead of getting away with punitive caps, Time Warner Cable had to “rethink” its definition of fairness, keeping prices the same for heavy users of bandwidth but offering discounts to customers whose usage was lighter. No money party for them.

So how did Cox frame its message in the pages of an industry trade journal to fellow members of the cable industry? Was it about fairness or collecting more of your money. You decide:

Customers will be notified of their data usage and any potential overages beginning in mid- June but won’t have to pay for overages until the October billing cycle, a Cox spokesman said. That gives customers the chance either to alter their usage or step up to a more data-intensive plan.   The additional charges serve as a temporary step-up plan for certain consumers, the spokesman said — they can keep their current level of service and pay the additional fee during months when usage spikes, like when their kids come home from college.

cox say noThe Government Accounting Office, charged with studying the issue of data caps, found plenty to be concerned about. Consumers rightfully expressed fears about price increases and confusion over data consumption issues. In short, customers hate the kind of usage-based pricing proposed by Cox. It’s a rate hike wrapped in uncertainty and an important tool to discourage consumers from cutting their cable television package.

It’s also nakedly anti-competitive because Cox has conveniently exempted its television, home phone, and home security products from its usage cap. Subscribe to Cox home phone service? The cap does not apply. Use Ooma or Vonage? The cap does apply so talk fast. If a customer wants to use Cox’s Home Security service to monitor their home while away, they won’t eat away their usage cap. If they use ADT to do the same, Cox steals a portion of your usage allowance. Watch a favorite television show on Cox cable television and your usage allowance is unaffected. Watch it on Netflix and look out, another chunk is gone.

While Cox starts rationing your Internet usage, it isn’t lowering your price. A truly fair usage plan would offer customers a discount if they voluntarily agreed to limit their usage. But nothing about Cox’s rationing plan is fair. It’s compulsory, so customers looking for a worry-free unlimited plan are out of luck. It’s punitive, punishing customers for using a broadband connection they already paid good money to buy. It’s arbitrary — nobody asked customers what they wanted. It doesn’t even make sense. But it will make a lot of dollars for Cox.

Cox claims it only wants usage caps to help customers choose the “right plan.”

The right plan for Cox.

To escape Cox’s $10 overlimit fees, a customer will have to pay at least $10 more to buy a higher allowance plan — turning a service that costs less to offer than ever into an ever-more expensive necessity, with few competitive alternatives. Will Cox ever recommend customers downgrade to a cheaper plan? We don’t think so. Customers could easily pay $78-100+ for broadband service that used to cost $52-66.

Back in 2009, the same arguments against usage caps applied as they do today. Industry expert Dave Burstein made it clear usage caps were about one thing:

“Anybody who thinks that’s not an attempt to raise prices and keep competitive video off the network — I have a bridge to sell them, and it goes to Brooklyn,” Burstein said.

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