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Stop the Cap! Reviews AT&T DirecTV Now: The Cord Cutting Revolution Continues

directvnow-planWhen AT&T announced it would offer 100+ cable television and broadcast network channels under the DirecTV Now brand for $35 a month, Wall Street had a fit.

Craig Moffett, an analyst with Moffett-Nathanson, speculated that AT&T would make at most a profit margin of $5 a month for its $35 a month plan, once programming costs were covered. But then AT&T announced it would sweeten the deal with a free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire Stick for those confident enough to prepay for the new service. That makes DirecTV Now a purposefully unprofitable service, creating considerable stress for both the cable and satellite industry and their investors.

Variety notes the average DirecTV satellite subscriber delivers about $60 a month in profit to its owner, AT&T. That led the industry magazine to speculate DirecTV Now is a “loss leader” designed to sell its parent company’s AT&T-Time Warner, Inc. merger deal to regulators on the premise of increased competition delivering real savings to consumers.

Thankfully for Wall Street’s nerves, AT&T’s usual practice of marketing things with a lot of fine print emerged in the nick of time, and the $35 dollar price has now turned out to be an introductory offer for early adopters. In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will enroll new customers for its “Go Big” package at a much more profitable $60 a month. Customers who sign up at the $35 rate and stay customers will be able to keep that price as long as they make no changes to their account after the promotion ends.

Moffett

Moffett

But Moffett warned investors that the traditional cable television model is still under serious threat, and AT&T’s less-promoted “Live a Little” package offering 60 popular cable networks for the everyday price of $35 is the equivalent of AT&T “running with scissors” because it alone could cause millions of cable and satellite customers to cut the cord and stay more than satisfied with a slimmed down cable package.

“Virtually all the channels that anyone would really want, save for regional sports networks” are included in the lighter “Live a Little” package, Moffett added. Customers who loathe watching sports but want a beefier package can also sign up for a $50, 80-channel “Just Right” package that primarily omits sports-oriented channels and a handful of spinoff cable networks few would miss.

Moffett and other Wall Street analysts were hoping AT&T would bloat its cheaper package with home shopping, religion, and other little-watched, low-cost cable networks and then entice customers to upgrade to unlock more popular cable channels. Instead, AT&T’s most premium package — “Gotta Have It” which costs $70 a month adds the “can live without” networks like Boomerang, Cloo, El Rey, Centric, and other little-known channels that typically live unnoticed in Channel Siberia on 500+ channel cable lineups. The highest premium priced package is attractive only for those looking for Starz/Encore channels and the basic cable network that gets no respect — Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (a/k/a the Dick van Dyke Permanent Employment Network.)

prepay-directvnow“By stacking their base package with all the best networks — likely a requirement for getting the programming contracts at all — they still have the same problem that was highlighted initially,” by Moffett. “Put simply, they aren’t going to make any money.”

That quest for profit is further challenged with subscriber acquisition programs that dole out free Apple TV units to customers willing to prepay for three months of service at the $35 rate or an Amazon Fire Stick (with Echo remote) in return for prepaying for one month of service. Anyone in the market for either device can sign up for DirecTV Now, get the equipment at an attractive price, and consider the 1-3 months of service a free extra bonus. Customers were reportedly lining up at AT&T’s owned and operated retail outlets (not authorized resellers) to pick up devices and sign up for service today.

At these prices and with these promotions, AT&T DirecTV Now could first decimate the subscriber base of its immediate competitors Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, either of which offer a much less compelling value. AT&T can afford to charge a lower price because it has deeper pockets and enormous volume discounts on the wholesale price of cable programming — combining millions of DirecTV and U-verse TV subscribers together to negotiate what industry insiders suspect are major discounts the smaller providers cannot get.

But there are issues likely to be deal-breakers for some would-be DirecTV Now subscribers:

  • Local broadcast stations are available only in a handful of selected cities and only a very few include all ABC, NBC, and FOX affiliates. CBS is not participating in DirecTV Now at this time, and that is a major omission;
  • NFL Network isn’t on the lineup;
  • Regional sports networks are spotty and geographically restricted. Here is a detailed PDF outlining options by zip code;
  • There is a limit of two concurrent streams and although video quality is very good, it is not the 1080/HD experience AT&T’s marketing material would suggest. The quality of your internet connection will make a difference;
  • No DVR option at this time.

CNET compiled an excellent channel comparison chart to help consumers figure out which, if any, of these upstarts make sense as a cable TV replacement:

DirecTV Now vs. Sling TV vs. PlayStation Vue (top 169 channels, see notes below)

Channel DirecTV Now Packages Sling Package Vue Package
A&E Live a Little Orange, Blue No
ABC Yes or VOD Broadcast extra Yes or VOD
AMC Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
American Heroes Go Big No Elite
Animal Planet Live a Little No Access
Audience Live a Little No No
AXS TV Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Baby TV No Kids extra No
BBC America Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
BBC World News Go Big News extra Elite
beIN Sports No Sports extra Core
BET Live a Little Blue (Orange lifestyle extra) No
Bloomberg TV Live a Little Base No
Boomerang Gotta Have It Kids extra Elite
Bravo Live a Little Blue Access
BTN Just Right No Core
Campus Insiders No Sports extra No
Cartoon Network/Adult Swim Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
CBS No No Yes or VOD
CBS Sports No No No
Centric Go Big No No
Cheddar No Orange, Blue No
Chiller Gotta Have It No Elite
Cinemax PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM No
Cloo Gotta Have It No Elite
CMT Live a Little Comedy extra No
CNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
CNBC World Just Right No Elite
CNN Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Comedy Central Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Comedy.TV Just Right No No
Cooking Channel Just Right Lifestyle extra Elite
CSPAN Live a Little No No
Destination America Go Big No Access
Discovery Channel Live a Little No Access
Discovery Family Go Big No Access
Discovery Life Go Big No Elite
Disney Channel Live a Little Orange Access
Disney Junior Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
Disney XD Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
DIY Go Big Lifestyle extra Access
Duck TV No Kids extra No
E! Live a Little Lifestyle extra Blue Access
El Rey Network Gotta Have It Orange, Blue No
Encore Gotta Have It No No
EPIX No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Drive-in No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Hits No Hollywood extra PREMIUM, Elite
EPIX2 No Hollywood extra No
ESPN Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN 2 Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN Bases Loaded No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Buzzer Beater No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Deportes No Spanish TV extra Orange Elite
ESPN Goal Line No Sports extra Orange No
ESPNEWS Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
ESPNU Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Esquire No No Access
Euro News No World News Extra No
Flama No Orange, Blue No
Food Network Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Fox Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
Fox Business Live a Little No Access
Fox College Sports Atlantic No No Elite
Fox College Sports Central No No Elite
Fox College Sports Pacific No No Elite
Fox News Live a Little No Access
Fox Sports 1 Live a Little Blue Access
Fox Sports 2 Go Big Blue Access
Fox Sports Prime Ticket Just Right No No
France 24 No World News Extra No
Freeform Live a Little Orange Access
Fuse Just Right No No
Fusion Just Right World News Extra Elite
FX Live a Little Blue Access
FXM Go Big No Elite
FXX Live a Little Blue Access
FYI Go Big Lifestyle extra No
Galavision Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Golf Channel Go Big Sports extra Blue Core
GSN Just Right Comedy extra No
Hallmark Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries No LIfestyle extra No
HBO PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM PREMIUM, Ultra
HDNet Movies No Hollywood extra No
HGTV Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Hi-Yah No No Elite
History Live a Little Orange, Blue No
HLN Live a Little News extra Access
HSN No No No
IFC Just Right Orange, Blue Core
Ion No No No
Impact No No Elite
Investigation Discovery Live a Little No Access
JusticeCentral.TV Just Right No No
Lifetime Live a Little Orange, Blue No
LMN Just Right Lifestyle extra No
Local Now No Orange, Blue No
LOGO Go Big Comedy extra No
Longhorn Network Just Right No No
Machinima No No Elite
Maker No Orange, Blue No
MGM-HD No No Elite
MLB Network Just Right No No
Motors TV No Sports extra No
MSNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
MTV Live a Little Comedy extra No
MTV Classic Go Big No No
MTV2 Live a Little Comedy extra No
Nat Geo Wild Go Big Blue Elite
National Geographic Live a Little Blue Access
NBA TV Go Big Sports extra Core
NBC Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
NBC Sports Network Just Right Blue Access
NDTV 24/7 No World News Extra No
News 18 India No World News Extra No
Newsy No Orange, Blue No
NFL Network No Blue Core
NFL Red Zone No Sports extra (Blue) PREMIUM (Core and up)
NHL Network Go Big Sports extra No
Nick Jr. Live a Little Blue No
Nickelodeon Live a Little No No
Nicktoons Live a Little Kids Extra Blue No
ONE World Sports No No Elite
Outdoor Channel No No No
Outside Television No Sports extra Elite
OWN Just Right No Access
Oxygen Just Right Lifestyle extra Blue Access
Palladia No No Elite
PBS No No No
Poker Central No No Elite
Polaris No Orange, Blue Elite
POP No No Access
QVC No No No
Revolt Go Big No No
RFD TV Live a Little No No
Russia Today No World News Extra No
Science Just Right No Access
SEC Network Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Showtime No No PREMIUM, Elite
Spike Live a Little Comedy extra No
Sprout Go Big No Elite
Starz Gotta Have It PREMIUM No
Sundance TV Go Big Hollywood extra Core
Syfy Live a Little Blue Access
TBS Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
TCM Live a Little Hollywood extra Core
Teen Knick Live a Little Kids extra Blue Elite
Telemundo Live a Little No No
Tennis Channel Go Big No No
The Weather Channel Live a Little No No
TLC Live a Little No Access
TNT Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Travel Channel Just Right Orange, Blue Access
truTV Live a Little Blue (Orange comedy extra) Access
TV Land Live a Little Comedy extra No
TVG Go Big No No
Universal HD No No Elite
Univision Live a Little Blue (Orange Broadcast extra) No
Univision Deportes Gotta Have It Sports extra No
Univision Mas Just Right Blue (Orange Broadcast Extra) No
USA Network Live a Little Blue Access
Velocity HD Live a Little No Elite
VH1 Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
VH1 Classic No No Elite
Vibrant TV No Lifestyle extra No
Viceland Live a Little Orange, Blue No
WE tv Live a Little Lifestyle extra Access
WeatherNation Live a Little No No
Notes

Broadcast networks including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are not available for live streaming in many cities, except where noted as “yes.” The term “VOD” means viewers can watch these shows on-demand 24 hours after airing.
Most RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) not listed; varies per locality

PREMIUM = Available for an additional monthly fee beyond base package

DirecTV Now package key:
Live a Little = $35/month (Local ABC, Fox, NBC broadcasts included in select markets)
Just Right = $50/month
Go Big = $60/month ($35 / month introductory price)
Gotta Have It = $70/month

Sling TV package key:
Orange = $20/month
Blue = $25/month
other “”extras”” = another $5 /month each (Sports extra with Blue is $10)
Broacast Extra: ABC, Univision and Univision Mas available to Sling Orange subscribers in select cities

PlayStation Vue package key:
(for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami ONLY)
Access (Base) = $40/month
Core = $45/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite = $55/month (includes Access and Core channels)
Ultra = $75/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

(for all other cities, where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are available via VOD only)
Access Slim (Base) = $30/month
Core Slim = $35/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite Slim = $45/month (includes Core and Access channels)
Ultra Slim = $65/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

Time Warner, Inc. did its part, offering a substantial deal to DirecTV Now to allow customers to add HBO and Cinemax for just $5 a month each, substantially less than what both networks charge customers signing up a-la-carte. This also unlocks access to streaming options on both networks’ websites.

In fact, as a DirecTV Now customer, you will also become an authenticated pay television subscriber, unlocking access on various cable network websites to extra streaming and on-demand options.

The implications of DirecTV Now depend on how long AT&T extends its $35 offer, which is going to be compelling for a lot of Americans. Moffett predicts DirecTV Now could sign up a staggering 11 million Americans — at least two million cannibalized from its own DirecTV satellite customer base, six million cutting the cord on their cable company (including AT&T U-verse) and another three million cord-cutters or “cable-nevers.” Most of the latter are Millennials, and research suggests $35 may be low enough of a price point to sign them up.

AT&T is also raising concerns among internet activists because online streaming of DirecTV Now will not count against an AT&T postpaid customer’s data allowance. This zero rating scheme is seen as an end run around Net Neutrality, particularly because AT&T is not as generous with its competitors. AT&T said it will offer other video streamers the possibility of being exempted from AT&T data allowances, if they pay AT&T for the privilege.

How It Works/Signing Up

AT&T DirecTV Now starts with the Google Chrome 50+, Safari 8+ or Internet Explorer 11+ (on Windows 8 and up) web browsers or the DirecTV Now app. AT&T recommends Chrome for desktop viewing. The service doesn’t work with Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or legacy browsers.

The first step is registering for a 7-day free trial. Before handing over your credit card number, if you scroll down you will find a small free preview option is also available that includes a largely useless streaming barker channel promoting the service and a respectable collection of video on demand options from basic cable networks. The free video streaming option will give you a clue about how the service is likely to perform on your internet connection and devices. For the record, DirecTV Now now supports:

Support for other devices like Roku is coming next year.

Customers must be within the United States to use the service. If you travel abroad or to any U.S. territories like Guam, the Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, DirecTV Now will stop working until you return. When you sign up, keep in mind your billing zip code will mean a lot when it comes to accessing regional sports and local broadcast channels. DirecTV Now uses your billing zip code and your actual location to determine whether you are qualified to access regional sports networks and local stations.

Score a Free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire TV Stick

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

If you are looking to score an Apple TV (4th generation) or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, you will want to skip the 7-day free trial and enroll in a paid plan immediately, which will allow you to select which player you want. If you want the Apple TV, you will prepay for three months at $35 a month ($105). The Amazon Fire TV Stick only requires you to prepay for the first month of service ($35). One device per email address, but you can sign up for multiple accounts (using individual email addresses) and get a device for each — especially useful for larger families that could run into DirecTV Now’s two-stream limit.

Consider your choices before enrolling. If you want to add premium channels or upgrade your plan, and you select the three-month prepay option to grab an Apple TV Player, adding premium channels like HBO and Cinemax or moving to a higher plan will result in three months of prepaid charges for those upgrades as well, billed automatically to your credit card on file — which amounts to a $30 charge if you select HBO and Cinemax. After your promotional prepaid term ends, your account will continue to be billed at the $35 (plus any add-ons) rate until you cancel. AT&T covers you for the forfeited first free week by extending your bill date out by seven days. Allow 2-3 weeks for the device(s) to be shipped to you.

You can also sign up at an AT&T owned and operated retail store, but be aware AT&T “authorized” reseller stores are not participating in this promotion. That may allow you to bring home a device today.

Don’t care about the device promotions? Take the 7-day free trial, but be aware that you are giving AT&T your credit card number and charges begin immediately after the free week ends unless you cancel. Here’s how:

  1. Sign in to your account.
  2. From your User Account overview page, select Manage My Plan.
  3. Select the Cancel Plan link.
  4. Choose one of the listed reasons.
  5. Select Cancel Now to confirm cancellation.

Your subscription will continue until the end of the billing cycle. No refunds or credits are provided for partial months. Your account will revert to Freeview demo status after you cancel a subscription.  You can add a subscription package back at any time.

Oddly, AT&T is not charging sales tax for New York, California, Maryland or Virginia residents. Customers in states like Tennessee where AT&T provides local phone service were most likely to face sales taxes. Those signing up early are in the best position to exploit what appears to be an oversight, or it represents the first time the New York Department of Taxation and Finance left money on the table.

directv-now-price

Streaming from Your AT&T Wireless Device Does Not Count Against Your Data Allowance

If you’re a DirecTV Now and AT&T Wireless customer, streaming most DirecTV Now movies and programs over the AT&T wireless network won’t count against your data usage allowance, according to AT&T. But believe it or not, AT&T’s fine print indicates advertisements and non-streaming app activity do count! There are some other important disclosures to be aware of:

  • You must be on the AT&T Wireless network within the U.S. (U.S. territories are not qualified for zero rating);
  • You must be a postpaid, not a prepaid AT&T wireless customer to qualify and must not have “data block” on your mobile line;
  • If you are grandfathered on an unlimited data plan, using DirecTV Now will not count against the 22GB data threshold which subjects you to speed throttling;
  • This offer may disappear at any time and/or is subject to change.

DirecTV Now Qualifies You as an Authenticated Pay Television Subscriber

Many cable networks require customers enter their cable, satellite, or telco TV login credentials to unlock video streaming and on-demand features. DirecTV Now is a qualified provider for these websites (more coming):

Other networks are not yet enabled for DirecTV Now. CNN, for example, has a prompt for DirecTV satellite customers to log in, but DirecTV Now has its own account registration system.

Local Channels Are Very Spotty

Local over the air channels are very limited on DirecTV Now and are geographically restricted. You can access these channels only if you are located in or very near to the cities listed below and your billing zip code is in the same area. If you travel outside of the immediate area, live streaming will stop working until you return.

ABC*  NBC**  FOX  and Telemundo  are covered by DirecTV Now in selected cities. CBS is not available on the service at all at this time.

  • wlsAtlanta, GA: WAGA-TV
  • Austin, TX: KTBC
  • Boston, MA: Telemundo East
  • Charlotte, NC: WJZY
  • Chicago, IL: WLS-TV, WMAQ, WFLD, Telemundo East
  • Dallas-Ft Worth, TX: KXAS, KDFW-TV, Telemundo East
  • Denver, CO: Telemundo East
  • fox2Detroit, MI: WJBK
  • Fresno-Visalia, CA: KFSN-TV, Telemundo East
  • Gainesville, FL: WOGX
  • Hartford-New Haven, CT: WVIT
  • Houston, TX: KTRK-TV, Telemundo East
  • 4nbcLas Vegas, NV: Telemundo East
  • Los Angeles, CA: KABC-TV, KNBC, KTTV, Telemundo East
  • Miami-Ft Lauderdale, FL: WTVJ, Telemundo East
  • Minneapolis, MN: KMSP-TV
  • New York, NY: WABC-TV, WNBC, WNYW, Telemundo East
  • Orlando-Daytona, FL: WOFL
  • Philadelphia, PA: WPVI-TV, WCAU, WTXF-TV, Telemundo East
  • Phoenix, AZ: KSAZ-TV, Telemundo East
  • Raleigh-Durham, NC: WTVD-TV
  • San Diego, CA: KNSD
  • San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, CA: KGO-TV, KNTV, KTVU
  • Tampa-St Petersburg, FL: WTVT
  • Washington, D.C.: WRC, WTTG

*Not available on Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 7. **NBC live stream available on mobile and desktop devices only.

Giving the Service a Test

Stop the Cap! enrolled as an ordinary customer this morning and gave the service a rigorous test, including multiple streams over our 50/5Mbps internet connection. The service debuted today, and there is little doubt there is intense interest from consumers, so we expected some performance problems from the initial demand. We didn’t see any evidence of traffic congestion, however, and that is a good sign.

AT&T's John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

AT&T’s John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

A similar test of Sling TV did not perform as well during peak viewing times, when streaming problems emerged. DirecTV Now seems to be built to withstand intense demand.

One customer with a 6Mbps U-verse internet connection “in the boonies” was impressed the video quality of DirecTV Now was high even on a relatively slow DSL-like connection.

“This blows SlingTV away,” the person shared. “I only have U-verse 6Mbps internet service and it is not pixelated or buffering at all. Looks exactly like my regular DirecTV picture.”

AT&T published these recommendations for DirecTV Now customers regarding internet connection speeds:

  • 150kbps – 2.5Mbps – Minimum broadband connection speed for Mobile devices
  • 2.5 – 5.0Mbps – Recommended for HD quality

We’ve been led to believe DirecTV Now should perform equivalently to 1080i HDTV service (depending on the video source of course). We cannot say we agree it does right now. We noticed significant artifacts on high-motion video and picture graininess that left us feeling this was closer to a 720p HD experience. It isn’t possible to say whether the video player reduced playback quality because of internet traffic issues we were unaware of or if this is how the picture is supposed to look. It did not significantly detract from the viewing experience and the lack of buffering and pixelation was far more important to us.

AT&T store in NYC.

AT&T store in NYC.

DirecTV Now would serve adequately as a cable TV replacement if it had local station coverage and some type of DVR. At present, DirecTV Now is limited to a “Restart” feature that allows you to restart shows already in progress on certain channels, but you cannot fast-forward or record a restarted show. Once AT&T introduces a cloud-based DVR and fills out the local station lineup, this service could be lethal to overpriced cable TV packages.

AT&T’s marketing attempts to undercut the powerful position of inertia by setting an unknown time limit for customers to enroll in the $35 a month video package. If you don’t sign up today, you may not get the “free” Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick and a respectable cable TV package for just $35 a month — about half what cable operators are charging these days for their bloated video packages. AT&T doesn’t care if you stick with your current cable provider and signup for DirecTV Now, if only to grab free streaming video equipment while sampling the service. They get their money either way.

Had AT&T permanently kept the price at around $35, many consumers would likely sit back and wait for AT&T to sort out the streaming contract issues it has with the TV networks — CBS in particular, and come up with a DVR solution before those potential customers decided to sign up and make the change. Based on several “hot deals” websites, the mentality among many consumers is to “lock in” the $35 price now and wait for AT&T to build out the package while continuing to invest $35 a month on it. That doesn’t seem so bad when you get free electronics as part of the deal.

Our Final Take

AT&T’s DirecTV Now is a potential winner and worth signing up for because of the introductory price and free equipment offers. But if you decide not to disconnect your cable/satellite television service, it is probably safe to drop DirecTV Now after your prepayment expires and return to resume service a little later. There will probably be some warning when AT&T will end the introductory price for the service, and interested customers can hop back on board before that date arrives. DirecTV Now will be a formidable competitor, but it will fight against consumer resistance to confront the cable company and cut cable’s cord until it solves the local channels issue and has a credible DVR option. The service could also use an add-on to make adding additional concurrent streams possible and more affordable than just signing up for a second account.

Don’t count out Big Cable just yet. With data caps and other internet overcharging schemes, Comcast, Cox, Suddenlink, and others can play games with usage allowances to deter customers from streaming all of their video entertainment online at the risk of blowing past their allowance. DirecTV Now’s $35 price won’t mean much after overlimit fees begin appearing on your internet bill.

Justice Department Suing AT&T for Antitrust Collusion Over Dodgers Sports Channel

spectrum-sportsnetWhile AT&T argues its blockbuster merger with Time Warner, Inc., will not represent an increased risk of media consolidation and antitrust abuse, that same phone company is now facing time in court to answer a lawsuit filed today by the Justice Department accusing AT&T of unlawful collusion with cable operators over the pricing of a Southern California regional sports channel.

DirecTV — now owned by AT&T — is accused of being the ringleader of an illegal “information-sharing” scheme that traded confidential information between the satellite provider, AT&T, Cox Communications, and Charter Communications regarding carriage contract negotiations between SportsNet LA (now known as Spectrum SportsNet) and competing pay television companies.

SportsNet LA has been in the news since its launch. Owned by the Los Angeles Dodgers and initially distributed by Time Warner Cable, SportsNet LA was rejected by most of its pay TV rivals after they balked over the asking price.

att directvNow the Justice Department is accusing DirecTV of a secretly coordinating the sharing of confidential information between the area’s cable operators and AT&T that “corrupted” negotiations with Time Warner Cable over the price to carry the channel.

With all of Southern California’s major cable companies and AT&T allegedly colluding with DirecTV, the providers could create a united front to demand a better price and terms for the sports channel. In the end, it didn’t work and Charter, Time Warner Cable’s new owner, remains the largest operator in the region to carry the network. Critics suggest Charter changed its mind about carrying the channel only to remove it as a potential issue in its merger with the larger Time Warner Cable.

“Dodgers fans were denied a fair competitive process when DirecTV orchestrated a series of information exchanges with direct competitors that ultimately made consumers less likely to be able to watch their hometown team,” said Justice Department lawyer Jonathan Sallet.

justiceThe Justice Department brought the case exclusively against DirecTV’s parent company — AT&T.

Cox was relieved not to be sued.

“We are gratified that we were not named as a defendant. We continue to be committed to making independent decisions on program content,” a Cox spokesperson said in a statement. Charter has refused to comment.

For now, AT&T plans a robust defense in court.

“The reason why no other major TV provider chose to carry this content was that no one wanted to force all of their customers to pay the inflated prices that Time Warner Cable was demanding for a channel devoted solely to LA Dodgers baseball,” AT&T said in a statement. “We make our carriage decisions independently, legally and only after thorough negotiations with the content owner. We look forward to presenting these facts in court.”

But the case highlights critics’ concerns that allowing AT&T to grow even larger with the acquisition of Time Warner, Inc., only increases the chances of more alleged antitrust violations and collusion between players in the increasingly concentrated pay television market. Since SportsNet LA launched in 2014, Charter Communications has merged with Time Warner Cable — changing the name of the sports channel to Spectrum SportsNet, Verizon Communications has sold its FiOS network to Frontier Communications, which already provides service in parts of California, and AT&T has purchased DirecTV outright. Only Cox remains untouched by the recent wave of consolidation, although many analysts expect a takeover bid from Altice USA sometime in 2017.

AT&T-Time Warner Deal Could Hinge on Data Usage Caps/Zero Rating

AT&T’s rivals are likely to cry foul over the company’s practice of “zero rating,” in which it exempts its own video services from data-cap usage. The Wall Street Journal’s Shalini Ramachandran explains how this could impact the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger. (2:44)

DirecTV Now Launches Friday Nov. 4; Won’t Be Marketed to U-verse/DirecTV Customers

Phillip Dampier November 1, 2016 AT&T, Competition, Consumer News, DirecTV, Online Video 4 Comments

directv-nowDirecTV Now, AT&T’s over-the-top online streaming cable television alternative is preparing to launch this Friday, Nov. 4, offering selected customers a free 7-day trial followed by a subscription offering more than 100 “premium” basic cable networks for $35/month.

As AT&T is rushing this service to the marketplace, details are still trickling in about the channel lineup, device compatibility, and exactly where AT&T plans to market the service. Stop the Cap! has collected details from a variety of sources to give readers additional insight about whether DirecTV’s satellite-less cable television alternative is right for you.

AT&T Will Not Market DirecTV Now to U-verse/DirecTV Satellite Customers

To protect against revenue cannibalization, AT&T will not be marketing or mentioning DirecTV Now to current AT&T U-verse or DirecTV satellite customers. The phone company does not want to lose their more profitable fiber-to-the-neighborhood or satellite dish customers to a lower-priced streaming-only alternative. A memo obtained by SatelliteGuys directed to AT&T and DirecTV supervisors and field technicians warns against even mentioning DirecTV Now unless they cannot complete an installation of U-verse TV or DirecTV satellite service:

As you may have heard, AT&T is launching a new over-the-top (OTT) service called DIRECTV NOW on November 4, 2016. OTT services provide potential customers with a streaming-only option when they are unable to have traditional DIRECTV or U-Verse TV service installed.

Though DIRECTV NOW does not require professional installation, technicians may want to be aware of the service and what it entails. For instances where a DIRECTV or U-Verse installation cannot be completed due to line-of-sight, landlord permission or other issues (emphasis from SatelliteGuys), technicians can provide information on the DIRECTV NOW service and let customers know they can visit directvnow.com to learn more.

Please note that DIRECTV NOW is a completely separate offering from traditional DIRECTV and U-Verse and should only be mentioned to customers when those services cannot be installed. If the customer is able to receive broadcast TV service, technicians should not proactively mention DIRECTV NOW as it is redundant with the DIRECTV and U-Verse Apps, which still offer streaming capabilities to subscribers of the DIRECTV and U-Verse TV services respectively.

In short, AT&T has no intention of competing with itself, which means customers in AT&T service areas will continue to be referred to U-verse for broadband and phone service and DirecTV’s satellite service for television, not DirecTV Now. The service will predominately be marketed to Millennials and the rest of an estimated 20 million Americans that have cut the cable TV cord or never signed up for service at all.

tv-everywhereKey Points: You Need a Qualified Streaming Media Player and a Fast Internet Connection

  • DirecTV Now is not expected to work with Roku at launch. Customers will need Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV/Stick, and/or Chromecast. More options are expected to arrive later. AT&T will initially promote the service for use with iOS or Android smartphones and tablets. AT&T Mobility customers will be able to stream DirecTV Now programming without it counting against your data plan, a controversial practice known as “zero rating;”
  • A minimum internet connection speed of 12Mbps is required for “high quality” streaming;
  • The DirecTV Now app will co-exist with the DirecTV app intended for satellite customers. The two services are considered independent of each other;
  • A programming package will be required, but there is no contract. Customers cannot choose channels a-la-carte, except for premium movie channels like Starz. One streaming video-on-demand package dubbed Freeview will target Millennials specifically, and is expected to be advertiser-supported and provided at no charge;
  • Customers can take advantage of a forthcoming free seven day trial by visiting directvnow.com and pre-registering.

DirecTV Now Programming Lineup

AT&T currently has agreements with 10 large programmer conglomerates, covering most of the major popular cable networks. A robust library of on-demand programming is also anticipated.

Among the networks we are confident will be a part of DirecTV Now:

  • Disney: ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, Freeform, Disney Channel, Disney XD and Disney, Jr.;
  • A+E Networks: A&E, Lifetime, History, LMN. FYI, VICELAND;
  • Scripps: HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, DIY, Cooking Channel, Great American Country;
  • Discovery Networks: The Discovery Channel and these likely additions: TLC, Investigation Discovery, Animal Planet, Science and Turbo/Velocity and OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network;
  • Agreements have also been signed with Comcast/NBC, Time Warner, Turner Networks, Starz, AMC, and Viacom.

Missing are agreements with CBS and FOX. We’re also uncertain about the availability of local channels. Additional channels are expected to be offered at an additional cost above the $35 for 100+ channels. We’ll learn more by the weekend.

Pondering the Future of AT&T’s Dead-Brand Walking U-verse, DirecTV, and Data Caps

att directvWith the advent of AT&T/DirecTV Now, AT&T’s new over-the-top streaming TV service launching later this year, AT&T is preparing to bury the U-verse brand.

Earlier this year, AT&T customers noticed a profound shift in the company’s marketing priorities. The phone company began steering potential customers to AT&T’s latest acquisition, satellite television provider DirecTV, instead of U-verse. There is an obvious reason for this – DirecTV has 20.45 million customers as of the second quarter of 2016 compared to 4.87 million customers for AT&T U-verse TV. Volume discounts make all the difference for pay television companies and AT&T hopes to capitalize on DirecTV’s lower programming costs.

AT&T’s buyout of DirecTV confused many Wall Street analysts, some who believe the days of satellite television are past their peak. Satellite providers lack the ability to bundle services, although some phone companies partner with the satellite company to pitch phone, broadband, and satellite TV to their customers. But consider for a moment what would happen if DirecTV introduced satellite television without the need for a satellite dish.

Phillip Dampier: The "U" in U-verse doesn't stand for "unlimited."

Phillip Dampier: The “U” in U-verse doesn’t stand for “unlimited.”

AT&T’s DirecTV Now will rely on the internet to deliver television channels instead of a satellite. AT&T is currently negotiating with most of the programmer conglomerates that own popular cable channels to allow them to be carried “over-the-top” through broadband connections. If successful, DirecTV Now could become a nationwide powerhouse alternative to traditional cable TV.

AT&T is clearly considering a potential future where DirecTV could dispense with satellites and rely on broadband instead. The company quietly began zero rating DirecTV streaming in September for AT&T Mobility customers, which means watching that programming will not count against your data plan. For current U-verse customers, broadband speeds have always been constrained by the need to reserve large amounts of bandwidth to manage television viewing. Although AT&T has been boosting speeds in selected areas, a more fundamental speed boost could be achieved if AT&T dropped U-verse television and turned the service into a simple broadband pipe that relied on DirecTV Now to manage television service for customers.

AT&T seems well on the way, adding this notice to customer bills:

“To make it simpler for our customers U-verse High Speed Internet and U-verse Voice services have new names: AT&T Internet and AT&T Phone. AT&T Internet product names will now align with our Internet speed tiers. Our voice plan names will remain the same.”

An earlier internal company memo suggested AT&T would eventually transition all of its TV products into “AT&T Entertainment” after completing a transition to its “next generation TV platform.” Increasingly, that platform seems to be an internet-powered streaming solution and not U-verse or DirecTV satellite. That transition should begin in January.

Top secret.

Gone by end of 2016.

It would represent a formidable change, but one that makes sense for AT&T’s investors. The transition to IP networks means providers will offer one giant broadband pipe, across which television, phone and internet access will travel. The bigger that pipe becomes, the more services customers are likely to use — and that means growing data usage. Having a lot of fiber infrastructure also lays the foundation for expansion of AT&T’s wireless network — particularly towards 5G service, which is expected to rely on small cell technology to offer faster speeds to a more localized area — fast enough to serve as a home broadband replacement. Powering that network will require plenty of fiber optics to provide backhaul access to those small cells.

Last week, AT&T announced it launched a trial 100Mbps service using point-to-point millimeter-wave spectrum to offer broadband to subscribers in multiple apartment complexes around the Minneapolis area. If the initial trial is successful, AT&T will boost speeds to include 500Mbps service to those same complexes. AT&T has chosen to provide the service outside of its usual service area — Minneapolis is served by CenturyLink. AT&T acquired a nationwide license to offer service in the 70-80GHz band back in 2009, and an AT&T spokesperson claimed the wireless signal can reach up to two miles. The company is also experimenting with new broadband over power lines technology that could offer service in rural areas.

cheapJust like its wireless service, AT&T stands to make money not just selling access to broadband and entertainment, but also by metering customer usage to monetize all aspects of how customers communicate. Getting customers used to the idea of having their consumption measured and billed could gradually eliminate the expectation of flat rate service, at which point customers can be manipulated to spend even more to access the same services that cost providers an all-time low to deliver. Even zero rating helps drive a belief the provider is doing the customer a favor waiving data charges for certain content, delivering a value perception made possible by that provider first overcharging for data and then giving the customer “a break.”

As of mid-September, streaming media analyst Dan Rayburn noted Akamai — a major internet backbone transit provider — was selling content delivery contracts at $0.002 per gigabyte delivered, the lowest price Rayburn has ever seen. Other bids Rayburn has reviewed recently topped out at 0.5 cents per gigabyte. According to industry expert Dave Burstein, that suggests large ISPs like AT&T are paying something less than a penny per gigabyte for internet traffic.

“If you use 139GB a month, that costs your provider something like $1/month,” Burstein wrote, noting doubling backbone transit costs gives a rough estimate of the cost to the carrier, which also has to carry the bits to your local exchange. In this context, telecom services like broadband and phone service should be decreasing in cost, not increasing. But the opposite is true. Large providers with usage caps expect to be compensated many times greater than that, charging $10 for 50GB in overlimit fees while their true cost is well under 50 cents. Customers buying a cell phone are often fitted with a data plan that represents an unprecedented markup. The extent of price increases customers can expect can be previewed by looking at the cost of phone service over the last 20 years. The average, often flat rate telephone bill in 1995 was $19.98 a month. In 2014, it was $73 a month. In 2015, it was $90 a month. Those dramatically rising prices in the last few years are mostly as a result of the increased cost of data plans providers charge to clean up on customers’ growing data usage.

Both Comcast and AT&T are dedicated to a campaign of getting customers to forget about flat rate, unlimited service at a reasonable cost. Even as both companies raise usage caps, they continue to raise prices as well, even as their costs to provide the service continue to drop. Both companies hope to eventually create the kind of profitable windfall with wired services that wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless have enjoyed for years since they abandoned unlimited flat rate plans. Without significant new competition, the effective duopoly most Americans have for telecommunications services offers the opportunity to create a new, more costly (and false) paradigm for telecom services, based on three completely false claims:

  • data costs are expensive,
  • usage must be monetized, and
  • without a bigger return on investment, investors will not finance the next generation of telecom upgrades.

But as the evidence clearly shows, profits from selling high-speed internet access are only growing, even as costs are falling. Much of the drag on profits come from increasing costs related to licensing television content. Voice over IP telephone service is almost an afterthought for most cable and phone companies, often thrown in for $10-20 a month.

AT&T’s transition puts all the attention and its quest for fatter profits on its broadband service. That’s a bad deal for AT&T customers no matter what the company calls its “next generation” network.

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