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Comcast Screw Up Forces Washington Man to Sell His New Home; Quoted Him $60,000 Installation Fee

MasterMap_Oct2012A Washington state man who just moved into his new home is now being forced to consider selling it to somebody else because Comcast repeatedly misled him about its ability to provide service.

Seth told his extensive story to The Consumerist, which detailed his repeated attempts to get Comcast broadband service after multiple missed or unfinished service appointments. More importantly, Seth is representative of many Americans who have been told broadband is a fiercely competitive industry, yet they cannot sign up for service at a reasonable price from any provider.

For Seth, having reliable broadband service is not just a convenience — it is essential if he wants to stay employed. Before even considering making an offer on his new home in Kitsap County, Seth did his homework verifying Comcast provided service in the neighborhood. Comcast repeatedly assured him it did, and one sales rep confirmed a former resident at the same address had Comcast service. Seth was satisfied, bought the home and called to get Comcast service installed. But when a Comcast crew arrived Jan. 31, they quickly discovered there was no cable line strung to Seth’s property. That isn’t typically a deal-breaker and the techs completed a “drop bury request” that would normally result in the arrival of a Comcast cable burial crew to bring service from a nearby utility pole. Not this time.

Comcast determined the same home that its own sales rep promised used to have Comcast service was now suddenly too far away from Comcast’s infrastructure. If it decided to offer Seth service, the company quoted an installation fee approaching $60,000.

Seth consulted the FCC’s Broadband Map which depicted Kitsap County a veritable paradise of competition, with at least 10 providers fighting for his business. But Seth quickly realized the FCC’s map was misleading and inaccurate.

comcast whoppersFour of his options were wireless carriers that don’t provide a strong signal to his home or charge obscenely high prices for usage capped Internet access. ViaSat was on the list promising up to 25Mbps, but ViaSat satellite customers can testify the actual speeds received are much slower, and do not reliably support the VPN access Seth required.

Neither Comcast or CenturyLink offer broadband service to Seth, despite the fact both told the FCC they did for the purpose of its map. StarTouch uses microwave signals to reach its customers, but not in Seth’s part of Kitsap County. It seems someone put up a large building in between StarTouch’s transmission facilities and Seth’s home, blocking the service for a significant part of the county.

XO Communications does provide reliable T1 service to businesses at speeds from 1.544Mbps – 6Mbps. The biggest downside is its cost — $600 a month. Finally, Seth’s only other alternative is a gigabit fiber network run by the Kitsap Public Utility District. But cable companies like Comcast effectively lobbied to guarantee those types of networks would never be a competitor by pushing for laws that forbid retail service to individual homes or businesses. In Washington, the law only allows the utility district to sell wholesale access to its network to companies like… Comcast.

In the end, Comcast decided it wasn’t interested in serving Seth even if he found the $60,000 to cover the installation fee. CenturyLink shrugged its shoulders over why it isn’t offering DSL in Seth’s neighborhood. Seth is preparing to put his home back on the market. It’s a perfect choice for Luddites everywhere.

The moral of the story?

  • Comcast is not always forthcoming and honest when signing up customers and led Seth through two months of missed appointments and misinformation;
  • The accuracy of the FCC’s broadband availability map is questionable.

California Delays Consideration of Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger, Charter Realignment Until May

comcastbuy_400_241Californians get a reprieve from the menacing Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger with an announcement from the California Public Utilities Commission it is putting further consideration of the merger deal on hold until later this spring.

Consumer groups loudly protested the PUC for holding its single public hearing on the merger in San Francisco, which has been served almost exclusively by Comcast for years. Most of the impact of the merger will be felt in Los Angeles, where Time Warner Cable provides service to around 1.8 million customers. The deal also involves Charter Communications customers in the region, who will also end up as Comcast customers if the deal is approved.

The PUC eventually agreed to hold a meeting in Los Angeles, but then scheduled it for Good Friday. Now it has changed the date for the four-hour public input session to April 14, one day before tax returns are due. No specific information about the time of the meeting could be located on the CPUC website, but we do know it will be held in the auditorium of the Public Utilities Commission’s building at 320 West 4th St. in downtown Los Angeles.

That the CPUC seems to be heading towards approving the deal does not come as much of a surprise. The CPUC has been surprisingly friendly to the communications companies it regulates, in the past approving questionable statewide video franchise reforms on behalf of AT&T and generally permitting most of the merger and consolidation transactions that arrive at the commission for review.

An advising administrative law judge attached a long list of recommended temporary conditions that should be included in any approval, covering everything from lobbying about municipal broadband to discount Internet service for the poor. Although Comcast claims it is willing to accept many of the short-term conditions, it also signaled objections to some of the most significant requirements, a potential sign Comcast might exercise its legal options in the future to be rid of the deal’s most onerous conditions.

Independent consumer groups not financially aligned with the cable industry are almost universally opposed to the merger as are many Californians.

New York Public Service Commission Delays Decision on Comcast-Time Warner Merger for the 7th Time

ny pscNew York regulators have once again kicked the can down the road, delaying a final decision on the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger for the seventh time.

Pursuant to a request from Department of Public Service staff in the above-referenced matter, Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc. agree to extend the time for action by the Public Service Commission on the Joint Petition, with a final order issued no later than Monday, April 20, 2015.

There is no clear sign why the Public Service Commission has further delayed its final decision, but the merger remains mired in controversy on both the state and federal level. The FCC recently stopped the clock on further consideration of the merger as legal wrangling continues over who gets to see copies of cable programming contracts with Comcast.

A draft report from California regulators recommended approval of the merger in February, but only after dozens of conditions were recommended to protect the public and competition. Final consideration of the merger request may come next week at a general meeting of the California Public Utilities Commission.

 

Sorry, That Competing Online Video/Cord-Cutter Competitor is Dead in the Water When Usage Caps Arrive

Phillip "It isn't so dumb to own the pipes" Dampier

Phillip “It isn’t so dumb to own the pipes” Dampier

In 2006, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre thought his company was at a disadvantage being stuck with “dumb pipes” while Google, Yahoo! (remember them?) and Vonage couldn’t count their earnings fast enough. While AT&T sold consumers plain DSL service, content was king on Wall Street and Whitacre groused it was unfair for bandwidth hogs to use “the pipes for free.” That one statement was the equivalent of throwing a lit match on a hillside in Malibu Canyon and a predictable firestorm over Net Neutrality ensued.

Nine years later, Net Neutrality is now official FCC policy, although the sour grape-eating Republicans will continue to throw Congressional hissyfits along the way. While they rely on tissue-thin evidence to back their assertion the FCC secretly colluded with the Obama Administration to stick it to AT&T and demand its repeal, the future of Net Neutrality will more likely be decided in a courtroom a year or two from now.

Back in 2006 AT&T primarily sold DSL service and was looking for cash to finance its then emerging U-verse platform. AT&T planned to follow cable’s lead, devoting most of the available bandwidth on its fiber to the neighborhood network to cable television programming. Broadband speeds were limited to just under 25Mbps — even less if a large household had multiple television sets in use.

But as the Great Recession arrived and wages stagnated, the cost of what used to be a “must-have” service for most Americans increasingly began to exceed the household budget and the day finally arrived when cable companies started losing more television customers than they were adding. Even worse, cable programming costs continue to spiral upwards and no major cable company can increase cable television rates fast enough to support the usual profit margin the industry counted on.

What Whitacre failed to realize nine years earlier is that broadband providers did not simply own “dumb pipes.” AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Charter and other providers actually occupy two gilded catbird seats, with AT&T and Verizon dominating the wireless Internet business and Comcast, Time Warner, and Charter dominating at-home viewing and wired broadband. Lawmakers who deregulated both industries predicted pitting AT&T against Comcast or Verizon against Time Warner Cable would create competition not seen since Coke vs. Pepsi. Consumers would benefit and world-class service would result.

Instead, Time Warner Cable now sells Verizon Wireless phone service. Verizon gave up on expanding its FiOS network and is selling off its DSL and FiOS business in pieces to focus on its best moneymaker, Verizon Wireless. Comcast in turn threw in the towel on any notion of offering competing cellular service and, in fact, sold its acquired wireless spectrum to Verizon.

PlayStation Vue's lineup

PlayStation Vue’s lineup

The best way to make money is to avoid price wars with your competitors and the evidence shows there is growing peace in America’s Telecom Valley. Comcast can now raise your broadband bill because, for most, Verizon FiOS isn’t an option. AT&T U-verse does not have to hurry speed upgrades to customers if Time Warner Cable delivers no better than 50/5Mbps service in large parts of its service area. Google Fiber remains a minor threat, only available in a handful of cities. AT&T distributed more copies of its press release touting U-verse Gigapower — its gigabit Internet offering — than there are customers qualified to sign up.

Notice that we’ve drifted away from talking about cable television programming. So has the industry, now increasingly dependent on broadband rate increases to make up the difference in revenue they used to take home from their television packages.

But now that the biggest players have a predictable source of revenue, allowing disruptors to further challenge earnings isn’t something your local cable and phone company will allow for long. At the moment, those most likely to cause problems are the growing number of “over the top” streaming video services that do not require a cable television subscription to watch. But they do need broadband — Whitacre’s “dumb pipes” — to reach subscribers. To manage that, services like Apple, PlayStation Vue and Sling TV and their customers must deal with the gatekeepers — AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and others.

What Whitacre thought was a disadvantage is now becoming the best thing in the world — manning a toll booth on the only two roads most Americans can use to access online content.

Today, Sony officially launched its Internet-TV service, “PlayStation Vue” in three cities (New York, Chicago and Philadelphia) with a base price of $49.99/month. In includes more than 50 cable networks and in the three launch cities — local network affiliates. In Chicago and Philadelphia, where Comcast provides cable service, potential customers will need to pay $50 a month for Vue and another $64.95 a month for 50Mbps broadband — the least expensive broadband-only tier that is suitable for high quality viewing. Your combined bill for both services is $114.94 a month. Comcast charges $99.99 a month for its double play – 220 TV channels and 50Mbps broadband — almost $15 a month less for its package, and it includes around 150 more channels than Vue.

Comcast explans its new usage caps.

Comcast explains its new usage caps.

But Comcast also has another weapon it is testing is several of its markets — the resumption of usage caps and overlimit fees on its broadband service. Comcast customers in most test markets are given 300GB a month, after which they face overlimit fees of $10 for each additional increment of 50GB. While web browsing and e-mail fit more than comfortably within those caps, watching HD video may not. That leaves a potential Vue customer with a major dilemma. Should they pay $15 a month more for service than they can pay Comcast for a better package -and- chew away their usage allowance using it?

Comcast has yet to figure out how to install a coin collector on top of your television set, so you can watch as much Comcast cable television as you’d like. But watching streaming video could get very expensive if it exceeds a future Comcast usage allowance.

Smaller video packages from providers like Sling TV or the forthcoming Apple streaming service might make more sense, but will still be subject to Comcast’s usage caps if/when they are reintroduced around the country, while Comcast’s own television service will not.

This is why cable and phone companies hold enormous power over their potential competitors, even if Net Neutrality is fiercely enforced. Usage caps and usage-based billing represent an end run around Net Neutrality and both are permitted. The FCC has consistently refused to engage on the issue of broadband usage caps, leaving providers with a useful weapon to deter customers from dropping their television package in favor of an online alternative.

With most Americans having a choice of only one or two “dumb pipes” over which they can reach these services, being an owner of those pipes and getting to set the rates and conditions to use them is a very comfortable (and profitable) place to be.

HissyFitWatch: Republicans Accuse the White House of Pressuring FCC on Net Neutrality

Wheeler at this morning's hearing.

Wheeler at this morning’s hearing.

Revenge-seeking Republicans spent more than two hours this morning grilling the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Thomas Wheeler, in the first of five Congressional hearings on the agency to be held over the next two weeks.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, accused the FCC of a lack of transparency regarding the recent release of Net Neutrality rules that universally ban paid fast lanes and revenue-based traffic management. Republicans accused the Obama Administration of secretly pressuring Wheeler to adopt strong Open Internet protections.

“The lack of transparency surrounding the open Internet rule-making process raises a lot of questions,” said Chaffetz.

Chaffetz, most of his Republican colleagues, and many large telecom companies object to the Net Neutrality rules and suggest Wheeler’s rumored original lighter-touch “hybrid approach” was swamped by White House objections and replaced with a much stronger Open Internet policy framed around Title II reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service at the urging of the administration.

Chaffetz dismissed comments from four million Americans writing the FCC in favor of Net Neutrality claiming the writers did not recommend Title II reclassification of broadband, despite the fact many suggested exactly that.

To bolster Republican arguments that President Obama exercised undue influence on an independent agency, Chaffetz’s committee selectively released portions of now-unredacted email exchanges between Wheeler, agency officials, Congress, and the White House. It also included a partial e-mail exchange involving AT&T’s top lobbyist, Jim Cicconi, who is evidently on a first-name basis with some of the FCC’s highest officials, including Wheeler’s senior counselor, Philip Verveer.

In response to a November 10 news release featuring comments from FCC chairman Wheeler in response to President Barack Obama’s statements of support for strong Net Neutrality, Cicconi sent a concerned email to Wheeler’s office the Republicans chose not to disclose. But they did include Verveer’s response:

Jim,

We’re trying to schedule a conversation about this morning’s developments for some time this afternoon. I hope we’re able to connect.

Phil

In response to that, Cicconi fired off this quick response from his iPad:

I hope so too.

Now I at least understand why you pushed the hybrid.

This is awful. And bad for any semblance of agency independence too.

Too many people saw Zients going in to meet with Tom last week.

verveer

Cicconi is referring to Jeff Zients, a White House economic adviser, who met with Wheeler on Nov. 6. In Cicconi’s mind, and by extension the Republicans at today’s House hearing, that meeting represented “undue pressure from the White House.”

Republicans also attempted to prove the FCC and the White House closely collaborated on a rollout of Net Neutrality using an email from an irritated Wheeler to his senior staff shortly after his driveway was blocked by Net Neutrality activists:

FYI, Isn’t it interesting:

  1. The day of the demonstration just happens to be the day folks take action at my house.
  2. The video of [President Obama] just happens to end up on the same message as the video from [the president].
  3. The White House sends this email to their supporter list asking “pass this on to anyone who cares about saving the Internet.”

Hmmm….

wheeler demo

chaffetz

Chaffetz

But Wheeler’s message suggests he was never aware of the White House’s campaign to bolster Net Neutrality, much less a part of it.

A third email from then Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid’s office revealed the senator was no fan of Title II reclassification of broadband to protect Net Neutrality. David Krone, Reid’s chief of staff, lectured Wheeler about keeping strong Net Neutrality off the table because it creates “problems for us.”

In May 2014, chairman Wheeler announced his plans for a hybrid approach to Net Neutrality that would likely combine bans on censorship with permission for Internet providers to set up paid fast lanes for content producers like Netflix.

Initial media reports of Wheeler’s intentions sparked a major backlash against the proposal among Net Neutrality advocates.

In a May 15, 2014 email exchange with Wheeler, Krone attempted to buck up Wheeler and his “third way” Net Neutrality plan once in the morning before it was announced and later that evening after the proposal took heavy fire in the press.

9:26 am (Krone to Wheeler)

Good luck today.

Not sure how things have landed but I trust you to make it work. Please shout if you need anything.

Spoke again with the [White House] and told them to back off Title II. Went through once again the problems it creates for us.

6:15pm (Krone to Wheeler)

Too funny. I literally just watched your remarks from this morning. Spot on. Thank you!!!

P.S. Zients was definitely reacting to press reports. Or, should I say, overreacting. My main point to the [White House] is how can you declare today that regulations written in the 1930’s will work fine for 2014 technology. Let Tom do his job and this will be fine.

reid

Another email exchange between Wheeler and John Podesta, counselor to the president, referenced a New York Times story that signaled Wheeler was backpedaling on Net Neutrality, a story later proven inaccurate.

podesta

At this morning’s hearing, Wheeler pushed back against the Republican accusations.

“There were no secret instructions from the White House,” Wheeler said. “I did not, as CEO of an independent agency, feel obligated to follow the president’s recommendation.”

C-SPAN carried this morning’s hearing with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler appearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. (2 hours, 41 minutes)

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