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John Malone Gets Puerto Rico Cable Monopoly: Liberty Global Takes Over Choice Cable

Phillip Dampier June 9, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Liberty Cablevision (Puerto Rico), Liberty/UPC, Public Policy & Gov't Comments Off on John Malone Gets Puerto Rico Cable Monopoly: Liberty Global Takes Over Choice Cable

choice-300x169John Malone’s Liberty Global has bought out Puerto Rico’s second biggest cable television operator — Choice Cable TV — and will convert its customers to Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico.

Liberty joined Searchlight Capital Partners to close the $272.5 million purchase, which will make Liberty Puerto Rico’s largest cable company, passing more than one million homes and serving about 750,000 customers.

Liberty put $267.5 million of the purchase on its credit card, using debt borrowing from another Malone-controlled entity — Liberty Cablevision — to fund most of the deal. Liberty Global contributed just $10.2 million in equity and its partner Searchlight kicked in $6.8 million in equity.

The deal gives Malone’s company a total cable monopoly on the island. Choice Cable was the last standing cable operator not owned by Liberty, and served customers in western, southern, and central Puerto Rico. Choice itself consolidated several independent cable operators, including Cable TV Northwest (Aguadilla), Dom’s Cable TV (San Germán), Cablevision Mayaguez and TelePonce Cable TV. Now it has been consolidated itself.

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Choice Cable used to offer service in these Puerto Rican communities. Most of the rest of the island is served by Liberty Cablevision, which will now have a total cable monopoly across the unincorporated U.S. territory.

According to Liberty Global, the combined cable company will be expected to generate at least $390 million in annual revenue. If it doesn’t, rate increases could be on the way. Channel changes have already been introduced.

Liberty Puerto Rico added 18 new channels to the Choice Cable lineup at no extra cost. The Choice Pak package includes the new channels: AMC, AXS TV, beIN in Spanish and English, Cablevision, Disney Jr., Fox Sports 1, FX, Lifetime Real Women and PBS Kids. The Top Choice package will include: Crime & Investigation, DIY, Esquire, Fox Sports 2, History in Spanish, IFC, Military History and NBA TV.

But several other channels will be dropped: MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Spike, TV Land and Palladia HD. These Viacom-owned channels were discontinued last year by Liberty in a dispute over programming fees.

Liberty intends to offer up to 120/4Mbps Internet speeds, over 100 HD channels (352 channels total), and a “better balance of English and Spanish language networks” to current Choice customers.

American Broadband Ripoff: Compare Your Prices With Eight Competing Providers in Bratislava, Slovakia

bratislvaThe largest telecom companies in the United States, their trade associations, and Ajit Pai, one of two Republican commissioners serving at the Federal Communications Commission routinely claim America has the best broadband in the world. From the perspective of providers running to their respective banks to deposit your monthly payment, they might be right. But on virtually every other metric, the United States has some of the most expensive broadband in the world at speeds that would be a gouging embarrassment in other countries.

Slovakia – A Long, Tough History, But Better Broadband than the United States

Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, has existed since the year 907. From the 10th century until just after the end of World War 1, the city (then commonly known by its German name of Pressburg) was part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the “War to End All Wars,” ethnic Czechs and Slovaks jointly formed a democratic Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 which existed peacefully until the Germans arrived in 1938 and renamed part of Czechoslovakia… Germany.

Unfortunately for the Czechs and Slovaks, life didn’t get much easier after the end of World War II. As Stalin sought to create a buffer zone between Germany (and western Europe) and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, along with most of Eastern Europe, faded behind the Iron Curtain into the Soviet sphere of influence.

The city center of Bratislava

The city center of Bratislava

After decades of deterioration under autocratic rule, the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989 restored multi-party democracy and Communism was was on its way to being fully extirpated across Europe.

By the time the June 1992 election results were announced, it was clear the country’s constituent Czechs and Slovaks had irreconcilable differences and were headed to national divorce court. On one side, the Czech-oriented Civic Democratic Party, headed by Václav Klaus. On the other, Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, whose aims were obvious based on its party name alone. With the writing on the wall, Klaus and Mečiar managed to work out an agreement on how to divide the country and on Jan. 1, 1993 the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic were born.

Since the separation, Slovakia has prospered, and is now recognized to have a high-income advanced economy with one of the fastest growth rates in both the European Union and the OECD. It joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009. Slovakia had to bring its economy up to date after fifty years of Communism. The country had a functioning telecommunications infrastructure, albeit one highly dependent on dilapidated equipment produced in the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and the Soviet Union.

After the Slovak Republic was born, Slovenské Telekomunikácie maintained a monopoly on Slovak telephone lines and telex circuits under the close watch of the Ministry of Transport, Posts and Telecommunications. It took until the year 2000 for economic reforms to allow for the privatization of telecommunications. As was the case in many other central and eastern European countries, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile) won a majority ownership in the company, which is today still known as Slovak Telecom.

The Slovak Broadband Marketplace Today

Slovak-TelekomThe Slovak government insisted that telecommunications networks in the country be competitive and it maintains oversight to make sure monopolies do not develop. It rejected claims that total deregulation and competition alone would spur investment. Slovakia welcomes outside investment, but also makes certain monopoly pricing power cannot develop. As a result, most residents of Bratislava have a choice of up to eight different broadband providers — a mix of cable, telephone, wireless, and satellite providers that all fiercely compete in the consumer and business markets.

Many providers are foreign-owned entities. UPC, Slovakia’s cable operator, is owned by John Malone’s Liberty Global. Slovak Telecom is owned by Germany’s T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom. Tooway is a French company.

300Prices are considerably lower than what American providers charge, although speeds remain somewhat lower than broadband services in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic States. At one address on Kláštorská, a street of modest single family homes (some in disrepair), these companies were ready to install service:

  • RadioLAN offers 18/1.5Mbps unlimited wireless service for $21.85 a month;
  • UPC offers 300/20Mbps unlimited cable broadband for $30.63 a month;
  • Slovanet offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $18.56 a month;
  • Swan offers 10.2Mbps/512kbps unlimited DSL for $24.70 a month;
  • Slovak Telecom offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $21.96 a month;
  • Benestra offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 4GB per day usage cap for $24.24 a month;
  • Satro offers 9Mbps/768kbps unlimited wireless service for $29.32 a month;
  • Tooway offers 22/6Mbps satellite Internet with a 25GB usage cap for $54.79 a month.

In other parts of the country, two providers are installing competing fiber broadband services. Slovak Telecom is slowly discarding its old copper wire infrastructure in favor of fiber optics, and is already providing 300Mbps service to some residents to better compete with UPC Cable. Some areas can get straight fiber service, others get VDSL, an advanced form of DSL offering higher speeds than traditional DSL. Orange, a provider not available in the immediate area of our sampled home, has already installed its own fiber service to over 100,000 fiber customers and is growing.

In comparison, Comcast sells 105Mbps service in Nashville, Tenn. for $114.95/mo (not including modem fee) with a 300GB monthly usage cap. That is one-third the speed of UPC Cable at nearly four times the cost… if you stay within your allowance. Prices only get higher after that.

Cable Magnate John Malone, Shareholders Avoid Billions in U.S. Taxes Exploiting Inversion Loopholes

Phillip Dampier November 3, 2014 Consumer News, Liberty/UPC, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment
Malone

Malone

Cable magnate John Malone has rarely had it this good at the expense of the U.S. Treasury. Using his vast wealth to hire some of the smartest tax advisers in the country, he has personally avoided hundreds of millions in U.S. taxes and shared the benefits of his tax tips with shareholders, who collectively stiffed the tax man out of more than a billion dollars in 2013.

As the Obama Administration fights with Republicans in Congress to close the loopholes, corporate executives and fellow billionaires routinely engage in tax avoidance schemes that shift their tax burden to ordinary Americans that cover the difference in the form of service cuts or higher taxes and fees to offset the lost revenue.

In 2013, Malone jumped on the “inversion” bandwagon, shifting the corporate address of Liberty Global, Inc. from Colorado to London, largely out of reach of the Internal Revenue Service.

Bloomberg News detailed Malone’s exploits over decades of “rich get richer” deals and the consequences of loopholes unavailable to most Americans that stay in the tax code at the behest of those who directly benefit from them.

Malone is fiercely protective of his $7.5 billion net worth, structuring investments, tax shelters, and end runs around tax laws in ways that often leave him with no tax liability at all.

dictionaryinversionsNot everyone can afford to move their assets overseas or set up complicated charitable trusts to shelter income, but the enormously wealthy Malone can. He recently passed Ted Turner as America’s biggest private landowner, owning 2.2 million acres of property in the United States, including more than 5% of the state of Maine.

Malone spreads his vast wealth around — owning stakes in Liberty Media, Liberty Global, and Liberty Interactive, as well as pieces of News Corp., Viacom, Time Warner, Inc., QVC, Discovery Communications, the old Court TV, DirecTV, SiriusXM satellite radio, Barnes & Noble, and Expedia.com.

Malone’s influence over the U.S. tax code comes in part from his advocacy work as an unpaid director at the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank that lobbies Washington hard for lower taxes and deregulation.

Malone’s personal tax code is to avoid taxes at all costs and, where possible, let someone else pick up the tab.

Malone’s baseball team, the Atlanta Braves, was instrumental as part of Liberty Media’s deal to cash out its stake in Time Warner without paying a dime in capital gains tax. Malone walked away with $1.4 billion in tax-free cash and ownership of the baseball team. Atlanta taxpayers will be responsible for more than $300 million in costs to build the Braves a brand new stadium in the Atlanta suburbs.

SiriusXM satellite radio subscribers were notified this week of the latest rate increase, due by the end of this year.

What they may not know is Malone’s Liberty Media now owns and controls the satellite radio venture. In 2009, Malone invested $530 million in the struggling operation. But he also gained the benefits of SiriusXM’s $6 billion in tax losses that Malone used to offset taxes on Liberty’s future profits. As a fringe benefit, Malone has also boosted revenue by imposing regular rate hikes on SiriusXM customers.

Like many U.S. corporations, Malone’s various Liberty ventures store massive amounts of cash in offshore bank accounts, avoiding U.S. taxes. When Liberty contemplated tapping that offshore cash, it faced a U.S. corporate tax rate of 35 percent. So Liberty joined more than a dozen other U.S. corporations relocating overseas, avoid corporate taxes back home.

Tax-Avoidance-600x400Although the corporation escapes a tax bill, shareholders usually do not, subject to tax for shares converted from the old U.S.-based company to the new overseas entity. Faced with owing capital gains taxes at a rate of 23.8 percent, the day before the inversion was announced, Malone transferred almost $600 million of his shares to the Malone-controlled, tax exempt LG 2013 Charitable Remainder Unitrust, avoiding much of the tax. Not satisfied with the fact he still would owe tax on the remaining $260 million of his personal stake in Liberty, the company hired Shearman & Sterling LLP to devise a strategy to get Malone (and shareholders) off the hook for any tax liability.

They found one, turning the government’s own efforts to plug tax loopholes against itself, manufacturing income that would not only satisfy the IRS’ recently hardened rules, but also let Malone & Co. escape any British tax liabilities in their new home.

“Malone threw a multi-billion dollar left hook at the Treasury Department,” said Samuel C. Thompson, a law professor at Pennsylvania State University. “They didn’t see it coming.”

As has been so often the case, the IRS eventually closed the loophole, but only after Malone exploited it.

Malone’s defenders point out all of his creative tax strategies are perfectly legal, and he is only taking advantage of existing U.S. tax laws. Detractors note America’s wealthy and powerful have exercised disproportionate influence over how those laws are written, usually through well-funded think tanks, lobbying firms, and anti-tax astroturf efforts. Most Americans lack the resources to take advantage of loopholes and benefits that require sophisticated advisers prepared to withstand any scrutiny from the IRS.

An emboldened Liberty Global is even willing to publicly signal its next tax avoidance measure.

In a filing last April, Liberty disclosed that a U.S. subsidiary will pay at least $7 billion in tax-deductible interest to its new UK parent over the next decade. Such payments are known to tax lawyers as “earnings stripping,” because the big interest deductions strip profits out of the U.S., thus cutting any U.S. tax obligation.

The practice has become so common among inverted companies headquartered overseas, Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer and Richard Durbin authored a bill to ban the practice. It has gone nowhere in the legislature because of objections raised primarily by Republicans, who characterize loophole closing measures as disguised “tax increases” on business.

What is Malone doing with all the money he has successfully kept out of the hands of the U.S. Treasury? He bought an Irish castle and three major Irish hotel properties. He did it using a capital gains tax holiday offered by Ireland’s government to wealthy investors willing to buy Irish real estate and retain ownership for a minimum of seven years.

Vodafone Exploring Buyout of Liberty Global; Malone’s Big Plan for Cable Consolidation At Risk

Phillip Dampier September 16, 2014 Competition, Consumer News, Liberty/UPC, Vodafone (UK), Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Vodafone Exploring Buyout of Liberty Global; Malone’s Big Plan for Cable Consolidation At Risk
Merger Partner?

The new owner of John Malone’s cable empire?

John Malone’s big plan for consolidating the cable industry might never see the light of day if one of the world’s largest mobile operators buys the company out from under him.

Bloomberg News is reporting Vodafone is exploring an acquisition of Liberty Global, Europe’s largest cable conglomerate.

Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao said John Malone’s European cable empire could be a good fit for the wireless provider assuming it is for sale “for the right price.”

Liberty owns cable operators in 12 European countries including Germany, Great Britain and the Netherlands. It also own a minority share of Charter Communications in the United States and controls Sirius/XM satellite radio.

Vodafone has recently been on a buying spree in Europe, mostly using the proceeds from the sale of its minority interest in Verizon Wireless. Vodafone has bought cable companies in Spain and Germany and is looking to acquire more “fixed networks” to offload mobile traffic.

Vodafone representatives denied there was any immediate interest in a deal with Liberty, but Wall Street analysts debated the prospects of a deal nonetheless. Vodafone’s operations are larger than Liberty’s in Europe, so the wireless provider has the resources to make the deal happen if it so chooses.

But Vodafone itself may be an acquisition target. Some analysts predict AT&T will make a bid to takeover the mobile operator after it completes its acquisition of DirecTV.

Britain’s ITV May Be Sold to U.S. Cable/Entertainment Conglomerate, John Malone, or Even Comcast

Phillip Dampier September 4, 2014 Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Liberty/UPC, Online Video Comments Off on Britain’s ITV May Be Sold to U.S. Cable/Entertainment Conglomerate, John Malone, or Even Comcast

itvIndependent television in Great Britain may soon be in the hands of U.S. citizen John Malone, former cable magnate and head of the giant Liberty Global cable and entertainment conglomerate that has swept across western Europe through a series of mergers and buyouts.

Deregulation has allowed the prospect of Britain’s biggest independent network, dwarfed only by the BBC, to soon be owned lock, stock, and barrel by Americans.

U.S. media conglomerates have already picked up the smaller Channel 5 network, purchased by Viacom in a surprise $757 million deal.

ITV produces an enormous number of television shows for its network of regional independent television stations across England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is these productions that are attracting attention from content-hungry U.S. media companies.

Liberty Global logo 2012John Malone’s Liberty Global is seen as a leading contender, already owning a 6.4% stake in ITV acquired from BSkyB for $824 million. Liberty Global and Discovery Networks have maintained close association and jointly bid $930 million to acquire All3Media, the production arm of reality shows like “Undercover Boss.”

ITV’s own needs for programming have increased dramatically with the introduction of digital free-to-air television across the United Kingdom. ITV’s single network, operating for decades, is today accompanied by ITV 2, 3, 4, Citv, and Encore.

Malone hopes to build a European media empire, and has amassed holdings including a takeover of Virgin Media and cable systems in Germany and the Benelux region.

Malone has wooed some of ITV’s biggest investors — all American — including Fidelity, which has a nearly an 8% stake, BlackRock, with 4.9%, and the California hedge fund manager Brandes, which has 4.8%.

Malone may face other bidders, however, notably Comcast-NBCUniversal, which has not yet publicly revealed whether it is interested or not.

Another potential benefit of the transaction would be to allow its American buyer to avoid U.S. taxes by relocating their corporate headquarters to Great Britain in a controversial practice known as tax-inversion.

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