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FCC’s Tom Wheeler Falls in Line Behind President Obama’s Strong Net Neutrality Agenda

Wheeler

Wheeler

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has foreshadowed his revised plan for Net Neutrality will include reclassification of broadband as a utility, allowing the agency to better withstand future legal challenges as it increases its oversight of the Internet.

Tom Wheeler’s latest comments came during this week’s consumer electronics show in Las Vegas. Wheeler stressed he supports reclassification of broadband, away from its current definition as an “information service” subject to Section 706 of the Telecom Act of 1996 (all two broadly written paragraphs of it) towards a traditional “telecommunications service.” Under the Communications Act of 1934, that would place broadband under Title II of the FCC’s mandate. Although at least 100 pages long, Title II has stood the test of time and has withstood corporate lawsuits and challenges for decades.

Section 706 relies almost entirely on competition to resolve disputes by allowing the marketplace to solve problems. The 1996 Telecom Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, sought to promote competition and end “barriers to infrastructure investment.” Broadly written with few specifics, large telecom companies have successfully argued in court that nothing in Section 706 gives the FCC the right to interfere with the marketing and development of their Internet services, including the hotly disputed issues of usage caps, speed throttling, and the fight against paid fast lanes and Internet traffic toll booths. In fact, the industry has argued increased involvement by the FCC runs contrary to the goals of Section 706 by deterring private investment.

An executive summary of a report published on the industry-funded Internet Innovation Alliance website wastes no time making that connection, stating it in the first paragraph:

Net neutrality has the potential to distort the parameters built into operator business cases in such a way as to increase the expected risk. And because it distorts the operator investment business decision, net neutrality has the potential to significantly discourage infrastructure investment. This is due to the fact that investments in infrastructure are highly sensitive to expected subscriber revenue. Anything that reduces the expectation of such revenue streams can either delay or curtail such investments.

netneutralityUnfortunately for consumers, even the chairman of the FCC concedes the broadband marketplace isn’t exactly teeming with the kind of competition Section 706 envisioned to keep the marketplace in check. In fact, Wheeler suggested most Americans live with a broadband duopoly, and often a monopoly when buying Internet access at speeds of 25Mbps or greater. Further industry consolidation is already underway, which further deters new competitors from entering the market.

Net Neutrality critics, the broadband industry, and their allies on Capitol Hill have argued that adopting Title II rules for broadband will saddle ISPs with at least one hundred pages of rules originally written to manage the landline telephone monopoly of the 1930s. Title II allows the FCC to force providers to charge “just and reasonable rates” which they believe opens the door to rate regulation. It also broadly requires providers to act “in the public interest” and unambiguously prohibits companies from making “any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.”

Both Comcast and Verizon have challenged the FCC’s authority to regulate Internet services using Section 706, and twice the courts have ruled largely in favor of the cable and phone company. Judges have no problem permitting the FCC to enforce policies that encourage competition, which has allowed the FCC some room to insist that whatever providers choose to charge customers or what they do to manage Internet traffic must be fully disclosed. The court in the Verizon case also suggested the FCC has the authority to oversee the relationship between ISPs and content providers also within a framework of promoting competition.

DC Circuit Court

DC Circuit Court

But when the FCC sought to enforce specific policies governing Internet traffic using Section 706, they lost their case in court.

Although Net Neutrality critics contend the FCC has plenty of authority to enforce Net Neutrality under Section 706, in reality the FCC’s hands are tied as soon as they attempt to implement anti-blocking and anti-traffic discrimination rules.

The court found that the FCC cannot impose new rules under Section 706 that are covered by other provisions of the Communications Act.

So what does that mean, exactly?

Michael Powell, former FCC chairman, is now the chief lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. (Photo courtesy: NCTA)

Michael Powell, former FCC chairman, is now the chief lobbyist for the National Cable & Telecommunications Association. (Photo courtesy: NCTA)

In 2002, former FCC chairman Michael Powell (who serves today as the cable industry’s chief lobbyist) presided over the agency’s decision to classify broadband not as a telecommunications service but an “information service provider” subject to Title I oversight. Whether he realized it or not, that decision meant broadband providers would be exempt from common carrier obligations as long as they remained subject to Title I rules.

When the FCC sought to write rules requiring ISPs not block, slow or discriminate against certain Internet traffic, the court ruled they overstepped into “common carrier”-style regulations like those that originally prohibited phone companies from blocking phone calls or preventing another phone company from connecting calls to and from AT&T’s network.

If the FCC wanted to enforce rules that mimic “common carrier” regulations, the court ruled the FCC needed to demonstrate it had the regulatory authority or risk further embarrassing defeats in the courtroom. The FCC’s transparency rules requiring ISPs to disclose their rates and network management policies survived Verizon’s court challenge because the court found that policy promoted competition and did not trespass on regulations written under Title II.

The writing on the wall could not be clearer: If you want Net Neutrality to survive inevitable court challenges, you need to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act.

Major ISPs won’t hear of it however and have launched an expensive media blitz claiming that reclassification would subject them to 100 pages of regulations written for the rotary dial era. Broadband, they say, would be regulated like a 1934 landline. Some have suggested the costs of complying with the new regulations would lead to significant rate increases as well. Many Republicans in Congress want the FCC to wait until they can introduce and pass a Net Neutrality policy of their own, one that will likely heavily tilt in favor of providers. Such a bill would likely face a presidential veto.

Suggestions the FCC would voluntarily not impose outdated or irrelevant sections of Title II on the broadband industry didn’t soothe providers or their supporters. Republican FCC commissioners are also cold to the concept of reclassification.

O'Rielly

O’Rielly

“Title II includes a host of arcane provisions,” said FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly in a meeting in May 2014. “The idea that the commission can magically impose or sprinkle just the right amount of Title II on broadband providers is giving the commission more credit than it ever deserves.”

Providers were cautiously optimistic in 2014 they could navigate around strong Net Neutrality enforcement with the help of their lobbyists and suggestions that an industry-regulator compromise was possible. Early indications that a watered-down version of Net Neutrality was on the way came after a trial balloon was floated by Wheeler last year. Under his original concept, paid fast lanes and other network management and traffic manipulation would be allowed if it did not create undue burdens on other Internet traffic.

Net activists loudly protested Wheeler’s vision of Net Neutrality was a sellout. Wheeler’s vision was permanently laid to rest after last November when President Barack Obama suddenly announced his support for strong and unambiguous Net Neutrality protections (and reclassifying broadband as a Title II telecommunications service), No FCC chairman would likely challenge policies directly advocated by the president that nominated him.

Obama spoke, Thomas Wheeler listened. Wheeler’s revised Net Neutrality plan is likely to arrive on the desks of his fellow commissioners no later than Feb. 5, scheduled for a vote on Feb. 26. It’s a safe bet the two Republicans will oppose the proposal and the three Democrats will support it. But chairman Wheeler also listens to Congress and made it clear he doesn’t have a problem deferring to them if they feel it necessary.

“Clearly, we’re going to come out with what I hope will be the gold standard,” Wheeler told the audience in Las Vegas. “If Congress wants to come in and then say, we want to make sure that this approach doesn’t get screwed up by some crazy chairman that comes in, [those are] legitimate issues.”

If that doesn’t work, the industry plans to take care of the Net Neutrality regulation problem itself. Hours after any Net Neutrality policy successfully gets approved, AT&T has promised to challenge it in court.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fox Business News Net Neutrality Wheeler 1-8-15.flv

Free Press CEO Craig Aaron appeared on Fox Business News to discuss Tom Wheeler’s evolving position on Net Neutrality. (3:54)

Internet Slowdown Day is Here: Tell the FCC to Classify ISPs as Common Carriers

Phillip "It's common sense" Dampier

Phillip “It’s common sense” Dampier

The concept is so simple one might think there was nothing controversial about the common sense idea of requiring Internet Service Providers to handle Internet traffic equally.

But that would throw a wrench into the money-making plans of some of America’s top cable and phone companies looking for new ways to collect more money and bigger profits from selling Internet access.

Wireless phone companies have already got the Money Party started, throttling certain traffic while exempting partnered apps and websites from counting against your monthly usage allowance. Americans pay some of the highest prices in the world for broadband service, but it is never enough for some executives who believe the increasing necessity of having Internet access means companies can charge even more for access. With few competitive alternatives, where are you going to go?

With most Americans confronted with just two Internet providers to choose from, the stage is set for mischief. The normal rules of competition simply don’t apply, allowing companies to raise prices while limiting innovation to finding new ways to improve revenue without improving the service. That has worked well for stockholders and executives that green-light these schemes, but for all the money Americans pay for service, broadband in the United States is still way behind other nations.

A few years ago, the CEO of AT&T decided that collecting money from customers to provide Internet access wasn’t enough. The company now wanted compensation from websites that generate the traffic ISPs handle for their customers. In other words, they wanted to be paid twice for doing their job.

If you listen to some of America’s largest cable and phone companies talk, you would think that traffic from Netflix and other high-volume websites was sucking them dry. But in fact their prices and profits are up and their costs are down… way down. But that doesn’t stop them from contemplating usage-based billing and reducing investment in upgrades to keep up with demand. Netflix learned that lesson when Comcast refused to upgrade some of its connections which left Netflix streaming video constantly buffering for Comcast customers. Those problems magically disappeared as soon as money changed hands in a deal that leaves Netflix dependent on paying Comcast protection money to make sure customers can actually enjoy the service they already paid to receive.

internetslowdownhero-100413741-large

Former FCC chairman Kevin Martin believed competition would keep ISPs honest, but since he left at the end of the Bush Administration, competition has barely emerged for most of us. Julius Genachowski, the FCC chairman under President Obama’s first term gave some strong speeches about protecting Net Neutrality but caved to provider demands the moment he met with them behind closed doors. Today, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler presides over an agency that has repeatedly had its regulatory hat handed to them by the D.C. Court of Appeals, which has ruled time and time again that the current regulatory foundation on which Internet-related policies are enforced is completely unsound.

We can thank former FCC chairman Michael Powell for that. His decision to classify broadband as an “information service” during the first term of the Bush Administration carries almost no legacy of court-upheld authority the FCC can rely on to enforce its regulations. Powell’s innovation was warmly received by America’s biggest cable companies who quickly realized the FCC had regulatory authority over the broadband business in name-only. Powell’s reward? A cushy job as head of America’s biggest cable lobby – the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA).

Don't allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Don’t allow Comcast and others to slow down your favorite cat videos.

Wheeler used to hold that position himself, and his trip through D.C.’s revolving door connecting regulators with the regulated makes it unsurprising that Wheeler’s own Net Neutrality proposal is not far from what Big Telecom companies want themselves — permission to create paid “fast lanes” on highways that currently lack enough capacity to protect other traffic from suffering the speed consequences of prioritized traffic.

It reminds me of those highway projects where cars dutifully change lanes well in advance of lane closures while other cars blow past only to merge at the last possible minute, saving them time while slowing cars behind them to a crawl as they wait to move ahead.

Make no mistake – paid fast lanes will compromise unpaid traffic, reducing the quality of your Internet experience.

The best solution to this problem would be for providers to devote more revenue to regular network upgrades that benefit everyone, not create new ways to ration the Internet for some while letting others pay to avoid speed bumps and congestion issues that are easy and inexpensive to solve. But if your provider was already delivering that kind of capacity, there would be no market for Internet fast lanes, would there? Without Net Neutrality, providers have a financial incentive not to upgrade their networks and have little fear unhappy customers will switch to the other competitor likely trying the same thing.

Net Neutrality cannot just be a policy, however. A strong regulatory foundation must exist to allow the FCC to enforce Internet-related policies without having them overturned by the courts. That means one thing: reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulations.

Net Neutrality opponents like to claim that would saddle Internet providers with decades old telephone regulations that have nothing to do with today’s broadband marketplace. But in fact that regulatory framework was originally established precisely for the reasons we need it again today — a non-competitive, largely unregulated marketplace is exploiting its market power to abuse customers and artificially interfere with traffic just to invent new ways to make more money.

People forget that in the 1920s, AT&T not only monopolized telephone service in most areas (and had a history of refusing to connect calls made from competing telephone companies to its own subscribers even as it hiked rates to pay for “improvements”), it was also attempting to force its for-profit vision on the newly emerging world of radio: “toll-broadcasting.” AT&T insisted that radio stations charge a fee to anyone who wanted access to the airwaves, and imposed the toll system on its own stations, starting with WBAY-AM (later WEAF) in New York on July 25, 1922.

Westinghouse, GE, RCA, and AT&T maintained such strong control over broadcasting and telecommunications in the 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission eventually filed a formal complaint with Congress declaring the four had “combined and conspired for the purpose of, and with the effect of, restraining competition and creating a monopoly in the manufacture, purchase and sale in interstate commerce of radio devices…and in domestic and transoceanic communication and broadcasting.”

It took the Justice Department to finally force a resolution to protect competition and the free exchange of ideas on the airwaves with a 1930 antitrust lawsuit against the four companies. In 1934, Congress passed the Communications Act establishing the FCC as the national regulator in charge of protecting some of the values that monopolies tend to trample.

The thing about history is that those who ignore it are bound to repeat it. Whether we are dealing with railroad robber barons, a Bell System monopoly, or barely competitive cable and phone companies, if the conditions are right to exploit customers on behalf of shareholders looking for bigger returns, companies will follow through. In the first two cases, with little chance that natural competition would bring a solution in a reasonable amount of time, regulators stepped in to restore some balance in the marketplace and protect consumers from runaway abuses. That has to happen again.

  • First, reclassify broadband as a common carrier under Title 2;
  • Second, enact strong Net Neutrality protections under that authority.

And don’t you believe that old chestnut that sensible regulatory policies will impede investment in telecommunications. Other nations that have much better broadband than we enjoy (at lower prices) already have reasonable regulatory protections in place that promote and protect competition instead of protecting incumbent market power and impeding would-be competitors. Investment in upgrades continues to pour in, further widening the gap between the kind of service we receive and what customers in other countries get for a lot less money.

The deadline for FCC comments on Net Neutrality is Sept. 15. Sending one directly is simple, effective, and will take less than five minutes.

  1. Visit fcc.gov/comments
  2. Click on the proceeding 14-28 (usually in the top three)
  3. Complete the form and type your comments in the big box. Tell the FCC you want broadband reclassified as a common carrier under Title II as a telecommunications service and that you want strong Net Neutrality policies enacted that forbid paid fast lanes and provider interference in your Internet experience.
  4. Submit the form and you are finished.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Democracy Now Internet Slowdown 9-10-14.mp4

If your favorite website seems to load slowly today, take a closer look: You might be experiencing the Battle for the Net’s “Internet Slowdown,” a global day of action. The Internet won’t actually be slowing down, but many sites are placing on their homepages animated “Loading” graphics , which organizers call “the proverbial ‘spinning wheel of death,’ to symbolize what the Internet might soon look like.

Large Internet service providers, or ISPs, like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T and Verizon, are trying to change the rules that govern the Internet. Some of the biggest companies on the Internet — Netflix, Mozilla, Kickstarter, Etsy and WordPress — are joining today’s Internet Slowdown to draw attention to Net Neutrality, the principle that service providers shouldn’t be allowed to speed up, or slow down, loading times on certain websites, such as their competitors.

This comes as 27 online advocacy groups sent a letter to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler Tuesday, calling on him to take part in town hall-style public hearings on Net Neutrality before ruling on the issue as early as this year. Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman talks with Tim Karr from the group Free Press, one of the main organizers of the Internet Slowdown global day of action. (7:15)

FCC Chairman Complains About State of U.S. Broadband But Offers Few Meaningful Solutions

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler doesn’t like what he sees when looks at the state of American broadband.

At a speech today given to the 1776 community in Washington, Wheeler complained about the lack of broadband competition in the United States.

“The underpinning of broadband policy today is that competition is the most effective tool for driving innovation, investment, and consumer and economic benefits,” Wheeler said. “Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases.”

faster speed fewer competitors

“The lighter the blue, the fewer the options,” Wheeler said, gesturing towards his chart. “You get the point. The bar on the left reflects the availability of wired broadband using the FCC’s current broadband definition of 4Mbps. But let’s be clear, this is ‘yesterday’s broadband.’ Four megabits per second isn’t adequate when a single HD video delivered to home or classroom requires 5Mbps of capacity. This is why we have proposed updating the broadband speed required for universal service support to 10Mbps.”

But Wheeler added that even 10Mbps was insufficient as households increasingly add more connected devices — often six or more — to a single broadband connection.  When used concurrently, especially for online video, it is easy to consume all available bandwidth at lower broadband speeds.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Wheeler’s new informal benchmark is 25Mbps — “table stakes” in 21st century communications. About 80 percent of Americans can get 25Mbps today or better, but typically only from one provider. Wheeler wants even faster speeds than that, stating it is unacceptable that more than 40% of the country cannot get 100Mbps service. Wheeler seemed to fear that phone companies have largely given up on competing for faster broadband connections, handing a de facto monopoly to cable operators the government has left deregulated.

“It was the absence of competition that historically forced the imposition of strict government regulation in telecommunications,” Wheeler explained. “One of the consequences of such a regulated monopoly was the thwarting of the kind of innovation that competition stimulates. Today, we are buffeted by constant innovation precisely because of the policy decisions to promote competition made by the FCC and Justice Department since the 1970s and 1980s.”

Wheeler said competition between phone and cable companies used to keep broadband speeds and capacity rising.

“In order to meet the competitive threat of satellite services, cable TV companies upgraded their facilities,” Wheeler said. “When the Internet went mainstream, they found themselves in the enviable position of having greater network capacity than telephone companies. Confronted by such competition, the telcos upgraded to DSL, and in some places deployed all fiber, or fiber-and-copper networks. Cable companies further responded to this competition by improving their own broadband performance. All this investment was a very good thing. The simple lesson of history is that competition drives deployment and network innovation. That was true yesterday and it will be true tomorrow. Our challenge is to keep that competition alive and growing.”

But Wheeler admits the current state of broadband in the United States no longer reflects the fierce competition of a decade or more ago.

“Today, cable companies provide the overwhelming percentage of high-speed broadband connections in America,” Wheeler noted. “Industry observers believe cable’s advantage over DSL technologies will continue for the foreseeable future. The question with which we as Americans must wrestle is whether broadband will continue to be responsive to competitive forces in order to produce the advances that consumers and our economy increasingly demand. Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler recognized what most broadband customers have dealt with for years — a broadband duopoly for most Americans.

antimonopoly“Take a look at the chart again,” Wheeler said. “At the low end of throughput, 4Mbps and 10Mbps, the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers. That is what economists call a “duopoly”, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition. But even two “competitors” overstates the case. Counting the number of choices the consumer has on the day before their Internet service is installed does not measure their competitive alternatives the day after. Once consumers choose a broadband provider, they face high switching costs that include early termination fees, and equipment rental fees. And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough, the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler emphasized that true competition would allow customers to change providers monthly, if a vibrant marketplace forced competitors to outdo one another. That market does not exist in American broadband today.

“At 25Mbps, there is simply no competitive choice for most Americans,” Wheeler added. “Stop and let that sink in…three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st century economics and democracy. Included in that is almost 20 percent who have no service at all. Things only get worse as you move to 50Mbps where 82 percent of consumers lack a choice. It’s important to understand the technical limitations of the twisted-pair copper plant on which telephone companies have relied for DSL connections. Traditional DSL is just not keeping up, and new DSL technologies, while helpful, are limited to short distances. Increasing copper’s capacity may help in clustered business parks and downtown buildings, but the signal’s rapid degradation over distance may limit the improvement’s practical applicability to change the overall competitive landscape.”

Wheeler finds little chance wireless providers will deliver any meaningful competition to wired broadband because of pricing levels and miserly data caps. Such statements are in direct conflict with a traditional industry talking point.

In a remarkable admission, Wheeler added that the only hope of competing with cable operators comes from a technology phone companies have become reluctant to deploy.

“In the end, at this moment, only fiber gives the local cable company a competitive run for its money,” Wheeler said. “Once fiber is in place, its beauty is that throughput increases are largely a matter of upgrading the electronics at both ends, something that costs much less than laying new connections.”

Wheeler also continued to recognize the urban-rural divide in broadband service and availability, but said little about how he planned to address it.

Wheeler’s answer to the broadband dilemma fell firmly in the camp of promoting competition and avoiding regulation, a policy that has been in place during the last two administrations with little success and more industry consolidation. Most of Wheeler’s specific commitments to protect and enhance competition apply to the wireless marketplace, not fixed wired broadband:

1. comcast highwayWhere competition exists, the Commission will protect it. Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.

In short, don’t expect anymore efforts to combine T-Mobile and Sprint into a single entity. Wheeler only mentioned “nationwide wireless providers” which suggests it remains open season to acquire the dwindling number of smaller, regional carriers. Wheeler offers no meaningful benchmarks to protect consumers or prevent further consolidation in the cable and telephone business.

2. Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it. Again, a good example comes from wireless broadband. The “reserve” spectrum in the Broadcast Incentive Auction will provide opportunities for wireless providers to gain access to important low-band spectrum that could enhance their ability to compete. Similarly, the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers. Third, where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum creates alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.

Again, the specifics Wheeler offered pertain almost entirely to the wireless business. Spectrum auctions are designed to attract new competition, but the biggest buyers will almost certainly be the four current national carriers, particularly AT&T and Verizon Wireless. Although low-band spectrum will help Sprint and T-Mobile deliver better indoor service, it is unlikely to drive new market share for either. Wheeler offered no specifics on the issues of Net Neutrality or municipal broadband beyond acknowledging they are issues.

3. Incentivizing competition is a job for governments at every level. We must build on and expand the creative thinking that has gone into facilitating advanced broadband builds around the country. For example, Google Fiber’s “City Checklist” highlights the importance of timely and accurate information about and access to infrastructure, such as poles and conduit. Working together, we can implement policies at the federal, state, and local level that serve consumers by facilitating construction and encouraging competition in the broadband marketplace.

competitionMost of the policies Wheeler seeks to influence exist on the state and local level, where he has considerably less influence. Based on the overwhelming interest shown by cities clamoring to attract Google Fiber, the problems of access to utility poles and conduit are likely overstated. The bigger issue is the lack of interest by new providers to enter entrenched monopoly/duopoly markets where they face crushing capital investment costs and catcalls from incumbent providers demanding they be forced to serve every possible customer, not selectively choose individual neighborhoods to serve. Both incumbent cable and phone companies originally entered communities free from significant competition, often guaranteed a monopoly, making the burden of wired universal service more acceptable to investors. When new entrants are anticipated to capture only 14-40 percent competitive market share at best, it is much harder to convince lenders to support infrastructure and construction expenses. That is why new providers seek primarily to serve areas where there is demonstrated demand for the service.

4. Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge – not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.

Again, Wheeler offers few specifics. Current efforts by the FCC include the Connect America Fund, which is nearly entirely devoted to subsidizing rural telephone companies to build traditional DSL service into high-cost areas. Cable is rarely a competitor in these markets, but Wireless ISPs often are, and they are usually privately funded and consider government subsidized DSL expansion an unwelcome and unfair intrusion in their business.

“Since my first day as Chairman of the FCC my mantra has been consistent and concise: ‘Competition, Competition, Competition,'” said Wheeler. “As we have seen today, there is an inverse relationship between competition and the kind of broadband performance that consumers are increasingly demanding. This is not tolerable.”

Under Wheeler’s leadership, Comcast has filed a petition to assume control of Time Warner Cable, AT&T is seeking permission to buy DirecTV, Frontier Communications is acquiring the wired facilities of AT&T in Connecticut, and wireless consolidation continues. A forthcoming test of Wheeler’s willingness to back his rhetoric with action is whether he will support or reject these industry consolidating mergers and acquisitions. Wheeler’s FCC has also said little to nothing about the consumer-unfriendly practice of usage caps and usage-based billing — both growing among wired networks even as they upgrade to much-faster speeds and raise prices.

52 Mayors Pledge Allegiance to Comcast’s Merger Deal; Is Yours on the List?

mayorsMore than 50 mayors of towns and cities large and small regurgitated Comcast-provided talking points in a joint letter submitted to the FCC in support of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger:

The combination of these two American companies will bring benefits to every affected city. Cities joining the Comcast service area will benefit from increased network investment, faster Internet speeds, improved video options and leading community development programs to help us tackle important community challenges like the digital divide. Existing Comcast markets will enjoy the benefits of a company with the scale and scope to invest in innovation and deliver products and services on a regional basis.

For us, the most significant aspect of the proposed transaction is its capacity to propel new investment in infrastructure in Time Warner markets that will enhance video and Internet service in our communities. Comcast has pledged to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year speeding up and improving the combined company’s networks.

We also view positively the apparent response to this development from other companies that provide similar services. Since the Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction was proposed, Google has announced plans to expand its high-speed Fiber service to 34 new communities, AT&T has announced plans to expand its 1 gigabit U-Verse service to 100 new municipalities including 21 large cities, and Sprint’s corporate parent has proposed to build a 200 Mbps wireless network for the US.

In addition to being terribly misleading, parts of the letter are factually inaccurate. The letter’s text was taken almost entirely from Comcast’s own talking points released to the media and disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown 2012: Time Warner Cable is naughty. 2014: Time Warner Cable is nice.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown
2012: Time Warner Cable is naughty.
2014: Time Warner Cable is nice.

Remarkably, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown managed a complete flip-flop on his views of Time Warner Cable. In 2012, he co-signed a letter accusing Comcast and Time Warner Cable of anticompetitive behavior, runaway rate increases, and a growing digital divide. He was speaking about Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s  decision to partner with Verizon Wireless to jointly market products to their customers:

“We are deeply worried that the anti-competitive partnership between Verizon Wireless, the nation’s largest wireless provider, and four of the leading cable companies will have a negative impact on economic development and job creation in our cities, leading to higher prices, fewer service options, and a growing digital divide, “ the letter reads. “As you review the Verizon Wireless/cable transaction, we strongly urge you to examine the impact of this transaction on competition and consumer choice, and ensure that our communities are not left behind.”

This year, despite the fact both Comcast and Time Warner Cable still have their cross-marketing agreement with Verizon and both cable operators have raised prices, Brown joined the other mayors heaping praise on both cable companies:

Time Warner Cable has been a responsible corporate citizen whose efforts will only be enhanced by joining forces with Comcast’s community investment programs. Comcast has established itself as an industry leader and exemplary community partner who invests in its local communities and works hand in hand with local governments on critical social challenges like the digital divide.

Except when it is not.

Matthew Keys, who comments on journalism and social media, notes the Comcast merger has little to do with broadband expansion at other companies:

But the mayors failed to note that Sprint’s pledge of a faster wireless data network was predicated on a merger with rival T-Mobile, which fell through earlier this month. In addition, AT&T’s 1-Gigabit Internet service is likely being offered as an incentive for the FCC to approve its own proposed merger with Comcast competitor DirecTV; the Internet service is offered to residents in a handful of cities at a whopping $100 a month, nearly triple what the company sells it’s basic broadband Internet service for. And while the mayors assert that Google is expanding its Fiber service to more than 30 areas, they fail to note that Google is in preliminary talks with those communities and that the rollout may never happen.

If any providers inspired a broadband speed Renaissance, it was Google Fiber and a handful of gigabit community-owned fiber networks like EPB in Chattanooga, all demonstrating fast speeds and affordable pricing can go hand in hand when your primary interest is serving customers, not shoveling money at shareholders.

Customers who happen to live in the cities below might want to fill the email boxes and melt down the phone lines of these mayors who have demonstrated a willingness to throw their constituents under the bus (Matthew Keys did an exceptional job collecting their contact information).

Feel free to share our fact-based testimony with the mayors and let them know you don’t appreciate the fact they are spending taxpayer time and money advocating for a multi-billion dollar cable merger the majority of Americans oppose. Then remind them if this merger succeeds, you will think of them every time you have a problem with your cable service, when your bill increases, and when you discover Comcast has rationed your use of the Internet with a compulsory usage allowance. Because these problems always come fast and furious with Comcast, let them know you will have no trouble recalling their role in bringing Comcast to town when you go and vote.

Mayor Name
City
State
E-mail
Phone Number
William Bell Birmingham Alabama [email protected] (205) 254-2283
Tom Tait Anaheim California [email protected] (714) 765-5247
Kathleen DeRosa Cathedral City California [email protected] (760) 770-0340
Harry Price Fairfield California [email protected] (707) 428-7400
Acquanetta Warren Fontana California [email protected] (909) 350-7600
Jeffrey Gee Redwood City California [email protected] (650) 780-7597
Steve Hogan Aurora Colorado [email protected] (303) 739-7015
Marc Williams Arvada Colorado [email protected] (303) 424-4486
Richard McLean Brighton Colorado [email protected] (303) 655-2266
Michael Hancock Denver Colorado [email protected] (303) 331-3872
Pedro Segarra Hartford Connecticut [email protected] (860) 757-9500
Cindy Lerner Pinecrest Florida [email protected] (305) 234-2121
Joy Cooper Hallandale Beach Florida [email protected] (954) 457-1318
Alvin Brown Jacksonville Florida [email protected] (904) 630-1776
George Vallejo N. Miami Beach Florida [email protected] (305) 948-2986
John Marks Tallahassee Florida [email protected] (850) 891-2000
Tomas Regalado Miami Florida [email protected] (305) 250-5300
Lori Moseley Miramar Florida [email protected] (954) 602-3142
Buddy Dyer Orlando Florida [email protected] (407) 246-2221
Frank Ortis Pembroke Pines Florida [email protected] (954) 435-6505
Michael Boehm Lenexa Kansas [email protected] (913) 477-7550
Michael Copeland Olathe Kansas [email protected] (913) 971-8500
Kevin Dumas Attleboro Massachusetts [email protected] (508) 223-2222
Gary Christenson Malden Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 397-7000
Michael McGlynn Medford Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 393-2409
Daniel Rizzo Revere Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 286-8111
Albert Kelly Bridgeton New Jersey [email protected] (856)-455-3230
Dana Redd Camden New Jersey [email protected] (856) 757-7200
Frank Nolan Highlands New Jersey [email protected] (732) 872-1224
David DelVecchio Lambert New Jersey [email protected] (609) 397-0110
Gary Passanante Somerdale New Jersey [email protected] (856) 783-6320
Thomas Kelaher Toms River New Jersey [email protected] (732) 341-1000
Eric Jackson Trenton New Jersey [email protected] (609) 989-3030
Richard Berry Albuquerque New Mexico [email protected] (505) 768-3000
Ken Miyagishima Las Cruces New Mexico [email protected] (575) 541-2067
Byron Brown Buffalo New York [email protected] (716) 851-4890
Ernest D. Davis Mount Vernon New York [email protected] (914) 665-2300
Lou Odgen Tualatin Oregon [email protected] (503) 691-3011
Joseph DiGirolamo Bensalem Pennsylvania [email protected] (215) 633-3603
Eric Papenfuse Harrisburg Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 255-3040
Rick Gray Lancaster Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 291-4701
Robert A. McMahon Media Pennsylvania [email protected] (610) 566-5210
Michael Nutter Philadelphia Pennsylvania [email protected] (215) 686-2181
C. Kim Bracey York Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 849-2221
Joseph Riley Charleston South Carolina [email protected] (843) 577-6970
Stephen Benjamin Columbia South Carolina [email protected] (803) 545-3075
Lee Leffingwell Austin Texas [email protected] (512) 974-2250
Beth Van Duyne Irving Texas [email protected] (972) 721-2410
Allen Owen Missouri City Texas [email protected] (281) 403-8500
Leonard Scarcella Stafford Texas [email protected] (281) 261-3900
Matthew Doyle Texas City Texas [email protected] (409) 643-5902

This article updated 8/28 to reflect that Pedro Segarra is the mayor of Hartford, Conn., not Hartford, Colo.

Comcast’s Reputation for Bad Customer Service is Legendary and Never-Ending

psctest

Comcast has repeatedly touted its rating from J.D. Power & Associates claiming the company has been cited for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. That isn’t saying very much when one takes a closer look.

comcast-time-warner-cable-mergerIn fact, since 2010 Comcast has achieved very little improvement in its abysmal score. J.D. Power & Associates reports that over the last four years, Comcast has only managed to boost its TV satisfaction score 92 points and Internet satisfaction 77 points… on a 1,000-point scale.[1]

Comcast also continues to have below-average scores in all four regions for both television and broadband, with the exception of Internet service in the north-central region, where it faces competition from DSL offered by telephone company CenturyLink.

Other consumer satisfaction surveys are far less charitable to Comcast.

Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their service and customer relations mediocre. In a survey conducted in April, the consumer group found 56% of the public opposed to the merger, 11% supported it, and 32% offered no opinion. The survey found 74% believing the merger will result in higher prices and fewer choices for consumers.[2]

“A merger combining these two huge companies would give Comcast even greater control over the cable and broadband Internet markets, leading to higher prices, fewer choices, and worse customer service for consumers,” Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel in Consumers Union’s D.C. office, said in a statement.[3]

Nearly every year, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises improvements.[4] But according to the American Consumer Satisfaction Index, those improvements never arrive.

In 2004, ACSI noted it added cable television to its index in 2000, and since that time, “customer satisfaction has gone from bad to worse, and there is no improvement in sight:”[5]

ows_139276912850214Among cable providers, Time Warner has the highest score of 60. Both Comcast and Charter Communications register at 56. For the private as well as public sector, including the IRS, this is the lowest level of customer satisfaction of any organization in ACSI. Consumer complaints are also much more common relative to any other measured industry. Almost half of all cable customers have registered complaints about one thing or another.

When buyers have meaningful choice alternatives, this level of customer (dis)satisfaction is neither competitive nor sustainable. Cable is the only industry to score below 60 in ACSI. With the satellite companies removed, the weighted average for the cable industry is 59.

Under normal competitive conditions, there would be mass customer defections. The reason this is not the case for the cable industry is due to local monopoly power, which means that in most markets, the dissatisfied customer has nowhere to go.

In 2007, ACSI foreshadows what a merger between two giant cable companies is likely to mean for customers as the two companies eventually attempt to integrate their disparate computer systems and management:[6]

After a minor gain in 2006, the first ever for the industry, satisfaction among subscribers to cable and satellite TV service drops 2% to 62, the lowest level of customer satisfaction among all industries covered by ACSI.  None of the providers has improved on customer satisfaction this year.  Comcast (down 7% to 56), DirecTV (down 6% to 67) and Time Warner Cable (down 5% to 58) tumble.  High system loads causing problems with reliability and pricing were major culprits.  Both Comcast and Time Warner have acquired many new subscribers in their deal to divide up troubled cable provider Adelphia Communications – integrating these acquisitions often leads to short-term problems with customer satisfaction.

Comcast MergerIn 2008, things deteriorated further for Comcast customers, according to this ACSI assessment:[7]

Comcast is down 4% to 54, an all-time low for the largest cable provider in the country. Rapid growth may have contributed to difficulties in operations as Comcast continues to add cable subscribers, often through acquisitions of companies in smaller markets.

[…] As is often the case, small is often better in terms of being able to provide good customer service. Cablevision, for example, with some 3 million subscribers, is barely 1/8th the size of Comcast. These companies don’t generally seek to expand quickly beyond their geographic footprints and are often targets of acquisition by larger firms, companies that may be able to withstand depressed customer satisfaction in the short term as operations of the smaller providers are integrated.

This year, both Comcast and Time Warner Cable fell even further according to ACSI:[8]

Cable giants Comcast and Time Warner Cable have the most dissatisfied customers. Comcast falls 5% to 60, while Time Warner registers the biggest loss and plunges 7% to 56, its lowest score to date.

“Comcast and Time Warner assert their proposed merger will not reduce competition because there is little overlap in their service territories,” says David VanAmburg, ACSI Director. “Still, it’s a concern whenever two poor-performing service providers combine operations. ACSI data consistently show that mergers in service industries usually result in lower customer satisfaction, at least in the short term. It’s hard to see how combining two negatives will be a positive for consumers.”

ACSI also scored Internet Service Providers this year and found even worse news:[9]

High prices, slow data transmission and unreliable service drag satisfaction to record lows, as customers have few  alternatives beyond the largest Internet service providers. Customer satisfaction with ISPs drops 3.1% to 63, the lowest score in the Index.

[…] Cable-company-controlled ISPs languish at the bottom of the rankings again. Cox Communications is the best of these and stays above the industry average despite a 6% fall to 64. Customers rate Comcast (-8% to 57) and Time Warner Cable (-14% to 54) even lower for Internet service than for their TV service. In both industries, the two providers have the weakest customer satisfaction.

Comcast claims the transaction will allow the two companies to invest in their networks, improve customer service, and enhance the products available to Time Warner Cable customers.

In reality, Comcast’s largest investment will be in a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their stockholders.[10] Time Warner Cable’s current CEO has secured for himself a golden parachute package of $78 million dollars for just two months on the job as CEO of Time Warner Cable.[11]

With that kind of money on the table, it is no surprise Comcast has invested in 76 lobbyists from 24 different lobbying firms and is spending millions trying to convince regulators, including the NY PSC that this transaction is a good deal for New York. The more than 2,700 New Yorkers that have filed comments with the PSC, largely in strong opposition to this merger, disagree. Their voices should speak louder than out of state groups that have been urged by Comcast to send letters supporting this transaction.

[1]http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/comcast-time-warner-cable-remain-among-most-hated-tv-providers-survey-1201145921/
[2]http://variety.com/2014/biz/news/comcast-time-warner-cable-merger-poll-shows-majority-oppose-1201224277/
[3]http://cuactionfund.org/get-the-facts
[4]http://www.dslreports.com/shownews/Comcast-CEO-Makes-His-Yearly-Promise-to-Improve-Customer-Service-128206
[5]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/86-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2004
[6]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/169-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2007
[7]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/179-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2008
[8]http://www.theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2014/press-release-telecommunications-and-information-2014
[9]http://www.theacsi.org/news-and-resources/press-releases/press-2014/press-release-telecommunications-and-information-2014
[10]http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/02/comcast_agrees_to_purchase_of.html
[11]http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/03/20/four-months-as-time-warner-cables-ceo--80-million/6658083/

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