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Sling TV CEO Fears Providers Will Jack Up Broadband Prices to Kill Online Video

DishLogo-RedIn the last three years, several Wall Street analysts have called on cable and telephone companies to raise the price of broadband service to make up for declining profits selling cable TV. As shareholders pressure executives to keep profits high and costs low, dramatic price changes may be coming for broadband and television service that will boost profits and likely eliminate one of their biggest potential competitors — Sling TV.

For more than 20 years, the most expensive part of the cable package has been television service. Cable One CEO Thomas Might acknowledged that in 2005, despite growing revenue from broadband, cable television still provided most the profits. That year, 64% of Cable One’s profits came from video. Three years from now, only 30% will come from selling cable TV.

While broadband prices remained generally stable from the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, cable companies were still raising cable television prices once, sometimes twice annually to support very healthy profit margins on a service found in most American homes no matter its cost. Despite customer complaints about rate hikes, as long as they stayed connected, few providers cared to listen. With little competition, pricing power was tightly held in the industry’s hands. The only significant challenge to that power came from programmers demanding (and consistently winning) a bigger share of cable’s profit pie.

The retransmission consent wars had begun. Local broadcast stations, popular cable networks, and even the major networks all had hands out for increased subscriber fees.

Rogers

Rogers

In the past, cable companies simply passed those costs along, blaming “increased programming costs” in rate hike notifications without mentioning the amount was also designed to keep their healthy margins intact. Only the arrival of The Great Recession changed that. New housing numbers headed downwards as children delayed leaving to rent their own apartment or buy a house. Many income-challenged families decided their budgets no longer allowed for the luxury of cable television and TV service was dropped. Even companies that managed to hang on to subscribers recognized there was now a limit on the amount customers would tolerate and the pace of cable TV rate hikes has slowed.

For a company like Cable One, the impact of de facto profit-sharing on cable television service was easy to see. Ten years ago, only about $30 of a $70 video subscription was handed over to programmers. This year, a record $45.85 of each $81 cable TV subscription is paid to programmers. The $35.50 or so remaining does not count as profit. Cable One reported only $10.61 was left after indirect costs per customer were managed, and after paying for system upgrades and other expenses, it got to keep just $0.96 a month in profit.

To combat the attack on the traditional video subscription model, Cable One raised prices in lesser amounts and began playing hardball with programmers. It permanently dropped Viacom-owned cable networks to show programmers it meant business. Subscribers were livid. More than 103,000 of Cable One’s customers across the country canceled TV service, leaving the cable company with just over 421,000 video customers nationwide.

Some on Wall Street believe conducting a war to preserve video profits need not be fought.

Prices already rising even before "re-pricing" broadband.

U.S. broadband providers already deliver some of the world’s most expensive Internet access.

Analysts told cable companies that the era of fat profits selling bloated TV packages is over, but the days of selling overpriced broadband service to customers that will not cancel regardless of the price are just beginning.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan admitted the real money was already in broadband, telling investors Cablevision’s broadband profit margins now exceed its video margins by at least seven to one.

The time to raise broadband prices even higher has apparently arrived.

new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment),” wrote New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin in a recent note to investors. The Wall Street firm sells its advice to telecom companies. “The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

If you are already a triple play cable television, broadband, and phone customer, you may not notice much change if this comes to pass, at least not at first. To combat cord-cutting and other threats to video revenue, some advisers are calling on cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter to re-price the components of their package. Under one scenario, the cost of cable television would be cut up to $30 a month while the price of Internet access would increase by $30 or more a month above current prices. Only customers who subscribe to one service or the other, but not both, would see a major change. A cable TV-only subscriber would happily welcome a $50 monthly bill. A broadband-only customer charged $80, 90, or even 100 for basic broadband service would not.

broadband pricesNeither would Sling CEO Roger Lynch, who has a package of 23 cable channels to sell broadband-only customers for $20 a month.

“They have their dominant — in many cases monopolies — in their market for broadband, especially high-speed broadband,” Sling CEO Roger Lynch told Business Insider in an interview, adding that some cable companies already make it cheaper for people to subscribe to TV and broadband from a cable company than just subscribe to broadband.

A typical Sling customers would be confronted with paying up to $100 a month just for broadband service before paying Sling its $20 a month. Coincidentally, that customer’s broadband provider is likely already selling cable TV and will target promotions at Sling’s customers offering ten times the number of channels for as little as a few dollars more a month on top of what they currently pay for Internet access.

Such a pricing change would damage, if not destroy, Sling TV’s business model. Lynch is convinced providers are seriously contemplating it to use “their dominant position to try to thwart over the top services.”

At least 75% of the country would be held captive by any cable re-pricing tactic, because those Americans have just one choice in providers capable of meeting the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

Even more worrying, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler may be responsible for leading the industry to the re-pricing road map by repeatedly reassuring providers the FCC will have nothing to do with price regulation, which opens the door to broadband pricing abuses that cannot be easily countered by market forces.

Lynch has called on the FCC to “protect consumers” and “make sure there’s innovation and competition in video.”

Unfortunately, Wheeler may have something else to prove to his critics who argued Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of broadband would lead to rampant price regulation. Wheeler has hinted repeatedly he is waiting to prove what he says — an allusion to hoping for a formal rate complaint to arrive at the FCC just so he can shoot it down.

Canada’s Choice: Privatized MTS Enriches Itself, Publicly Owned SaskTel Enriches Customers

Truth or Consequences: Does privatizing a government-owned telephone company encourage innovation and efficiency or serve to enrich a handful of executives and shareholders at the cost of customer service? Two essentially equal telephone companies serving the Canadian prairie provinces offer some useful insights.

sasktelThe provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan are remarkably similar in their landscape and their sparse populations — 1.29 million in Manitoba and 1.13 million in Saskatchewan. Today, most are concentrated in or near a few large cities with many small agricultural towns scattered across great distances.

At the dawn of the 1900s, the “Sunny way” of Prime Minister Sir Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier and his Liberal party was to push open the western frontiers and lay new railways across Canada. Part of the zeal for expansion came from a sense of growth and optimism, but there were also pervasive fears that without significant settlements in central Canada, the Americans could end up annexing huge swaths of empty Canadian agricultural lands for its own interests.

To prevent this and enhance its own national identity, Canada threw its doors open to immigration, especially to hard-working Americans from the midwest who were inundated with government-sponsored advertisements about a new life and opportunities that waited in the Canadian prairies.

The campaign worked. Between 1901 and 1906, the population of Saskatchewan surged from 91,279 to 257,763, 86.8% settled in rural farming areas. By 1911, the population almost doubled again to 492,432 with over 80% located away from the cities of Regina and Saskatoon. Next door in Manitoba, many new residents preferred areas south of Winnipeg, closer to the American border.

mtsServing this population boom depended heavily on Canadian railroads, which delivered settlers and laborers, medicine, farming equipment, and the latest news from Ottawa. The trains returned east with part of the harvest and various meats.

It was no surprise Canada’s telecommunications infrastructure (along with more than a few new towns) would grow up along its railway lines.

With Bell Canada preoccupied with its larger client base in Ontario and Quebec, both the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan established provincial, publicly owned, phone companies to take control of their telecommunications future. In 1908, the Manitoba Telephone System (MTS) was born, made up mostly of former Bell customers. In 1909, SaskTel was established as a publicly owned operation as well, again comprising former Bell customers in the province. Both MTS and SaskTel quickly bought out all the remaining private telephone companies still operating in their midst.

The Winnipeg Free Press notes both MTS and SaskTel successfully served their respective customers for nearly 90 years. In 1997, Manitoba’s Progressive Conservative premier Gary Filmon broke his pledge to keep hands off MTS and privatized the company, claiming it would be more innovative in private hands.

That move would not be repeated in Saskatchewan, where every political party in office usually treated SaskTel as sacrosanct to the province’s economic development. Even the conservative Saskatchewan Party, which held power in the province from 1982-1991, never got around to privatizing the phone company, and a pledge to privatize crown corporations in the near future was just one of several issues that led to the party’s downfall in the election of 1991.

w canadaFor the last 18 years, Canadians have been able to see which province made the wisest choice. The newspaper concluded after nearly two decades, there is strong evidence MTS’ main priorities are to satisfy shareholders and commercial business customers, while rewarding their executives with handsome pay packages.

“Meanwhile, SaskTel appears to focus on customer service and satisfaction, being a good employer and on providing returns to their public shareholder: the people of Saskatchewan,” the Winnipeg Free Press concluded.

Evidence of SaskTel’s service ethic could be found last week when SaskTel was acknowledged as western Canada’s most dependable wireless carrier, according to a new study by market researcher J.D. Power.

“SaskTel ranks highest in overall network quality and performs particularly well in call quality, messaging quality and data quality,” J.D. Power said in its report.

SaskTel has never been reserved about its own accomplishments, particularly its success delivering innovative new services to sparsely populated regions across Saskatchewan:

  • SaskTel was the first telecommunications company in Canada to complete its rural individual line service program, eliminating all party lines in 1990;
  • SaskTel was at the forefront of Internet provision as the first in Canada to remove the long distance charges on dial-up Internet and the first in North America to offer high-speed service on phone lines through DSL technology;
  • SaskTel was among the first commercial users of fiber-optics in the world, today offering customers competitive cable television, broadband, and phone service.
Filmon

Filmon

MTS has not turned out to be the innovator it was promised to be as a private company. While SaskTel was becoming a world leader in converged fiber optic networks, supplying voice, data and video across a strand of fiber, MTS was raising rates on landline customers.

Today, a basic landline in Saskatchewan costs around $8 a month — 27% less than the cheapest MTS home phone service. Everything at MTS usually costs more, which has turned out very well for shareholders and executives. While MTS earns roughly double the profit of SaskTel, almost all goes to major shareholders and top executives. SaskTel has returned $497 million over the last five years to the provincial government as well as customers through an annual dividend payment. Over in Manitoba, MTS has proved to be innovative in avoiding its tax bill — only paying corporate taxes once in 10 years — and that was just $1.2 million in 2010. Creative accounting at MTS has allowed the profitable company to pay “a big fat zero in federal and provincial corporate income taxes,” according to the newspaper, and MTS does not expect to owe a penny in income taxes until 2020 at the earliest.

So where do MTS profits go? Last year, MTS former CEO Pierre Blouin received $7.8 million in compensation, well above his five-year average of $4.8 million. Blouin’s salary was more than 10 times higher than what SaskTel’s CEO receives annually.

The newspaper adds MTS directors are paid more than 10 times what SaskTel’s directors are paid. But even more disturbing, the man who made the Money Party possible for MTS — former premier Gary Filmon — had a cozy, well-compensated home waiting for him on the MTS board after he lost his re-election bid. He has used his time at MTS to feather his own nest with more than $1.4 million in director fees and compensation over 10 years, along with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of shares.

“None of this is meant to suggest SaskTel is an ideal company, but it appears abundantly clear this publicly owned and operated company provides better service at lower costs to its customers than the privatized MTS, and it also provides much larger benefits to the people of the province from its profits,” writes economist Toby Sanger. “Despite all this, the Saskatchewan government may be laying the groundwork for privatization of SaskTel. If this is what we can expect from the privatizations of other public utilities — higher fees for the public, lower-quality service, much higher compensation for CEOs and executives, higher corporate profits but much lower returns for the provinces — we can see why Bay Street [Canada’s Wall Street] is so excited about the privatization of Hydro One — and why the people of Ontario should be very worried.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The right plan for Cox.

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

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

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

While Your Cable TV Bill Rises Due to “Increased Programming Costs,” So Are Advertising Loads

cablebill-web

Cablevision’s broadcast TV surcharge increased in January to $5.98 a month, which amounts to $71.76 a year, on top of your usual cable TV bill.

No it isn’t your imagination. While a growing number of cable television subscribers now face a “broadcast programming surcharge” on their cable bill to compensate television stations and networks for cable carriage, those same channels are larding up their programming with ever-increasing advertising. One quarter of every hour of network television is now littered with commercials — an all-time high for broadcast networks seeking to maximize advertising revenue.

Show openings have been cut to seconds, credits roll by at fast-forward speed – usually compressed into illegibility, and some cable networks have returned to the practice of chopping bits of shows and compressing playback of others to accommodate more commercials. That does not include product placement or “in-program” compensated advertising, which appears when a character picks up a can of Pepsi, walks by a Subway outlet, or reaches for a Pop-Tart for breakfast.

As early as 2009, TNS Media Intelligence found at least 36% of today’s network primetime shows were advertising-oriented. That included 7:59 of in-show brand appearances and 13:52 of commercial advertisements, for a combined total of 21:51 of marketing content.

Reality shows, as well as being cheap to produce, are product placement gold. America’s Toughest Jobs contained 44:50 per hour of advertising messages and product placement, The Biggest Loser ran up 40:37. Before the reality show craze, game shows were program-length commercials in disguise. Game show producers received an endless supply of prizes to give away in return for viewers enduring relentless 10-15 second pitches for Rice-a-Roni, crock pots, living room furniture sets, and current model cars and trucks. Viewers did not escape traditional advertisements along the way either.

Through much of the 1970s and early 1980s, an average hour of network television was between 48-52 minutes of programming, 8-12 minutes of network and local commercials. Short news breaks and public service announcements were often included during those breaks. Shows targeting children usually contained less advertising.

In 1984, the Reagan Administration deregulated broadcasters, claiming the free market was best equipped to contain any abusive practices as consumers theoretically could tune out stations and networks that allowed things to get out-of-hand.

In reality, what one network decided, the others usually followed. Outside of watching commercial-free PBS (although those sponsorship messages increasingly began to resemble traditional advertising over the years), viewers didn’t have much choice. For the last 31 years since deregulation, advertising has increased while show length has decreased. In the 1970s and 80s, pieces of rerun television shows created when ad loads were shorter were often cut from shows to make room for an extra ad or two. What was left after a trip to the cutting room was often played slightly sped-up, which made room for even more advertising. By the 1990s, producers created their shows with increasing advertising loads in mind. Short sacrificial 60-90 second end scenes, deemed non-essential to the show’s integrity, were often chopped when a show entered syndication.

In the 2000s, network executives started demanding producers drastically cut the length of show opening and closing themes. If producers didn’t, studios did it for them when a show was resold to a cable network. A rerun of Law & Order now features a 24-second opening, a big difference from the original 1:45 second opening the show had when it originally aired on NBC. End credits were usually squished on-screen to allow a 15-second network promotion to run at the top. Some networks even began their next show in one window while showing end credits of the last program in another.

But nothing affected commercial loads more than the 2008 Great Recession. Advertising revenue tumbled, along with the economy, and advertisers balked at paying traditional ad rates when online advertising was available for much less. The answer? Sell more ads… at a lower price. Once again, program lengths had to be cut to make room for the increasing number of commercials. By 2009, average network ad loads were up to 13:25 per hour. Just four years later in 2013, that number spiked to 14:15. It’s now 15 minutes and up at some networks, depending on the type of program.

As commercials neared comprising 25% of every hour of television, sponsors finally began to rebel. They were reacting to the pervasive growth of the DVR, which allowed consumers to record their favorite shows, if only to fast forward past the dense thicket of commercials. They sought a ceiling on ad loads and more creative ways to reach ad-skipping audiences numbed by relentless advertising. That meant even more product placement.

Although sponsors of expensive NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX shows may have rebelled at the 15-minute mark, the same isn’t true with cable networks where ad loads are as high as 24 minutes per hour. In 2009, the average cable network aired 14:27 of advertisements an hour. This year, it’s up to 15:18 and still rising. Among the worst offenders:

ad load

To keep the money flowing from every direction, both over-the-air and cable networks, including those noted above, continue to seek additional compensation from your provider in the form of retransmission consent and carriage agreements. Whether you watch a channel or not, you are paying for it. Some of these compensation agreements are experiencing rate increases approaching 10% annually.

To the surprise of many industry analysts, some of the worst offenders are networks with declining ratings who risk further alienating viewers with even more advertising just to keep revenue numbers up. While traditional ads actually declined by 2% on most over the air networks this year, FOX more than made up for that with a 15% increase in advertising time. The cable networks with the highest ad increases this year were Viacom-owned channels (Comedy Central, Spike, MTV, Nickelodeon) jumping 13%, A+E Networks (A&E, Crime & Investigation, Lifetime, History) increasing 10%, and 9% at Discovery Networks. Which networks increased ads the least? Those owned by Disney, independent cable networks, and Time Warner (Entertainment).

“Generally speaking, the ratings winners (Disney, 21st Century Fox, Scripps Networks) are increasing investment in original content (and not abusively increasing ad loads), whereas the losers (A+E Networks, Viacom, NBCUniversal) and the neutrals (Discovery, AMC Networks) are decelerating investment in original content and stuffing more ad spots into their shows,” said analyst Todd Juenger of Sanford C. Bernstein.

Michael Nathanson of MoffetNathanson Research worries television is repeating the mistakes commercial radio made post-deregulation, when massive increases in advertising accompanied by decelerating investment in programming repelled many listeners, perhaps for good. Some have permanently abandoned commercial over the air radio in favor of commercial free music services, satellite radio, and streaming services.

“Networks can offset ratings challenges and pricing weakness with more inventory, however, we worry that it is a dangerous long-term game that ultimately devalues the consumer experience and reduces ad efficacy,” Nathanson said. “As we saw with radio, once the increased commercial load genie is out of the bottle, it is nearly impossible to put it back in.”

When Stephen Cox was watching The Wizard of Oz on TBS last November, something didn’t sound quite right to him about the Munchkins, who are near and dear to his heart. He wasn’t imagining things. Time Warner-owned TBS used compression technology to speed up the movie. The purpose: stuffing in more TV commercials.

“Their voices were raised a notch,” Cox, the author of several pop-culture books including one about the classic 1939 film, told the Wall Street Journal. “It was astounding to me.”

The Colbert Report hilariously depicts the next generation of product placement: the retroactive ad technology of Mirriad, which can insert products into shows years after they were made. (4:04)

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.

Our Long Nightmare is Over At Last: Stop the Cap! Ponders the Failed Comcast-Time Warner Cable Merger

Phillip "Victory is Ours" Dampier

Phillip “Victory is Ours” Dampier

It has been 14 months since we heard for the first time Comcast was planning to acquire Time Warner Cable. It was the night of February 12, 2014. I still remember where I was the moment I first learned the news.

Stop the Cap! has maintained a civil relationship with Time Warner Cable for the most part over our seven-year struggle fighting usage caps, lousy broadband, and high prices. We fought one major battle with the company in April of 2009, when Time Warner executives planned a compulsory usage cap experiment on customers in Rochester, N.Y., Austin and San Antonio, Tex., and Greensboro, N.C.

Just as we had done with Frontier Communications a year earlier, we successfully beat down their efforts to impose usage allowances on customers already paying a significant chunk of money for broadband Internet access. After that battle ended, Time Warner Cable changed their position on usage caps and stated emphatically that customers should always have the option of unmetered/unlimited access. They have kept their word. In fact, their optional usage cap experiments have been a spectacular flop, attracting less than 1% of their customer base and delivering the message we’ve tried to get across the industry for years: customer hate usage caps, usage-based billing, and speed throttles.

Comcast is a company that long ago stopped listening to their customers. It applied an arbitrary usage cap on all their customers in retaliation for a FCC decision that disallowed them from running hidden speed throttles on peer-to-peer Internet traffic. Comcast lied about throttling traffic, paid homeless people to stack a hearing on the issue to keep company critics out of the room, and slapped the caps on in the fall of 2008 with the flimsy excuse it represented “fairness” to customers. Only later, we would learn usage caps were never about “fairness” or good traffic management. It’s just a way to deter customers from spending too much time on the Internet, especially if that time is spent watching online videos. Too much time spent watching Netflix might convince you your cable TV package isn’t necessary any longer.

comcast twcComcast customer service horror stories reached a level unparalleled by other cable companies when a Comcast predator-installer was convicted of raping and strangling to death 23-year old Comcast customer Urszula Sakowska,  whose lifeless body was found in a bathtub inside her Chicago-area home back in 2006. But Triplett’s violent service calls didn’t stop there. He also faced charges in the death of 39-year old Janice Ordidge, a Comcast customer in Hyde Park. Those two Comcast customers lost their lives. In 2009, another Comcast installer set a Pennsylvania customer’s house on fire. Other installers stole jewelry right out of customers’ homes. Others have exposed themselves in front of female customers or fallen asleep on their couches.

Billing errors are the stuff of legend at Comcast. Offshore call centers with language barriers, inept customer service, and long, long, long lines at cable stores with windows only partially manned by agents sitting behind bullet-proof glass also helped cultivate a customer relationship that can best be described as “perp and victim.”

Comcast isn’t just a bad cable company, it’s a menace. We didn’t have to spend hours proving our case. Fortunately, Comcast’s appalling reputation preceded it. Outside of two executive suites in Philadelphia and New York, nobody was for supersizing Comcast. Just to make sure our regulators knew this, we traveled to Buffalo in June of last year to testify at a Public Service Commission hearing on the subject of the merger. We didn’t mince words.

Sure, there were non-profit groups like the Boys & Girls Club that absolutely sullied their reputation pushing for the merger (Comcast wrote large checks to the organization so you need not give the group a single penny of your money in the future). “Civil Rights” organizations like the Urban League, NAACP, and others that used to defend minority rights now concern themselves with defending the interests of giant cable companies, just as long as they get a nice check in the mail with Comcast’s name on it. Among the worst of all – Shakedown Al Sharpton who will either be your merger deal’s best friend or will go away and leave victims of racism in peace, if you cut his organization a big fat check. (Now that the merger has collapsed, perhaps Comcast-owned MSNBC will end the thinly veiled quid-pro-quo arrangement it has with the man that gives him an hour a night to perform a talent train wreck.)

My own state assemblyman, Joe Morelle, who served as New York’s interim assembly speaker for about five minutes literally plagiarized his letter in support of the Comcast merger (after cashing their check) almost word-for-word from Comcast press releases and congressional testimony. Say it ain’t so, Joe!

morelleN.Y. State Assembly Leader Joe Morelle: “The combination of Comcast and Time Warner Cable will create a world-class communications, media and technology company to help meet the increasing consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces and on-the-go.”

 

cohenDavid Cohen, executive vice-president, Comcast: “The combination of Comcast and TWC will create a world-class communications, media, and technology company to help meet the insatiable consumer demand for advanced digital services on multiple devices in homes, workplaces, and on-the-go.”

 

There was not a doubt in my mind that replacing Time Warner Cable with Comcast would be a disaster for Time Warner Cable customers. Despite promises Comcast would upgrade Time Warner’s network, it would also upgrade customer bills, resorting in higher priced service, higher modem fees, and lousy customer service. Comcast vice president David Cohen also made it clear usage caps would be a part of our life within five years. No amount of protesting or rational argument would stop Comcast from being Comcast. Don’t like it? Just try to cancel.

Time Warner Cable can be bad but it is no Comcast.

Malone: Waiting in the wings?

Malone: Waiting in the wings?

Life will be just fine without Comcast, but danger lurks on the horizon. Still interested in the possibility of taking over Time Warner Cable is the smaller Charter Communications, now effectively controlled by cable magnate John Malone (he owns his own castles). Malone has a long history of enriching himself at the expense of customers with no other choices for cable/broadband service. He used to control Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), a cable company that literally threatened city officials who didn’t do what TCI wanted.

We remain unsure exactly what will happen next. Charter could bid aggressively to buy Time Warner Cable, Time Warner Cable could go it alone, or Time Warner Cable could start buying other cable companies (like Charter).

What we hope will happen is Time Warner Cable will refocus its energy on expanding its Maxx upgrade program as quickly as possible to reach all Time Warner Cable markets with faster broadband and a better cable TV experience. We also hope the company will stand by its word that compulsory usage caps are off the table.

I’d like to thank all of our readers who took the time to get involved in the fight and helped make a difference. Wall Street and Washington, as well as Comcast CEO Brian Roberts are all shocked the merger deal collapsed after a torrent of criticism from consumers. It also left state regulators cautious about how to proceed. New York’s Public Service Commission delayed making a decision eight times, recognizing the merger as a hot potato.

Our experience demonstrates that ordinary citizens can wield considerable power when unified and involved. We’ve proved that with multiple victories on the usage cap front as well as the AT&T/T-Mobile merger and Net Neutrality.

Let the fight for better broadband continue!

Special Report: Wheeling ‘n Dealing At the California Public Utilities Commission – The Peevey Years

special report

Part One: The Peevey Era (2002-2014)

California’s Public Utilities Commission seems increasingly unable to escape its reputation for backroom dealing, close personal ties to lobbyists working for the utility companies it regulates, and a growing conclusion it could care less about the interests of ordinary California consumers it is supposed to protect. That’s great news if you are an energy or telecommunications company with business before the commission, but bad news for consumers.

In this first part in a series of reports, Stop the Cap! investigates corruption at the highest levels of the California regulator. Search warrants have been executed, documents seized, and top officials of one of the state’s largest utilities have been fired. But it that enough for Californians to finally get a fair shake?

Before a series of scandals reached the front pages of state newspapers last year, many Californians would be hard-pressed to explain what “CPUC” stood for, much less take an active interest in its regulatory and oversight activities. That may have made it easier for the California Public Utilities Commission to escape the close scrutiny other state agencies receive, at least until local news outlets turned their investigative reporters loose on the agency and its president.

The CPUC regulates the state’s energy and telecommunications companies, at least as far as federal and state laws allow these days. Most of the proceedings are conducted in public, but a great deal of the real business takes place behind closed doors in private. Sometimes these “ex parte” meetings and communications are disclosed to the public. But uncomfortably often, the participants look for excuses not to report.

Peevey

Peevey

The Michael Peevey Era: Bending Over Backwards for Utilities Who Returned the Favor

For most of the last 12 years, the man who presided over the CPUC was Mr. Michael Peevey.

Then Gov. Gray Davis appointed Peevey to lead the CPUC on New Year’s Eve 2002, replacing its incumbent president Loretta Lynch (no relation to the current Obama Administration’s attorney general nominee). Lynch had been a strong consumer advocate at the commission and tried to hold back utility company rate increases at a time when Enron was manipulating wholesale energy prices in the state. When Peevey and Lynch served together as commissioners at the CPUC, their relationship was clearly strained, with several testy exchanges taking place between the two. In general, they opposed each other. Peevey supported deregulation, Lynch sought to protect consumers from the effects of a manipulated, deregulated marketplace.

Consumer advocates like the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights pounced on the nomination, predicting it would be a disaster for California consumers.

”Making Mike Peevey the head of the PUC is like asking [Enron’s CEO] Kenneth Lay to run the [Securities & Exchange Commission],” said FTCR’s senior consumer advocate, Doug Heller in January 2003. ”After what the energy industry did to California, it is shocking that Davis would give an energy company executive such a prominent position. Not only has Davis failed to place an independent consumer voice on the commission, he is letting the energy industry run the agency.”

Peevey was a company man through and through, spending decades working for California utilities, most recently as president of Edison International and its well-known subsidiary, Southern California Edison (SCE). He was also well-connected politically, married to Democratic state senator Carol Liu. He left Edison in 1993 in what a 1997 Wall Street Journal piece called “a less-than-amicable separation” to do consulting work for 18 months.

Peevey Made Millions While Supporting Energy Deregulation That Brought Higher Rates and Rolling Blackouts for California Consumers

In 1995, Peevey launched New Energy Ventures, Inc., luring a former president of the CPUC to the venture, which would take advantage of energy generation deregulation in California to compete with SCE for customers. Peevey was a staunch advocate and lobbied hard for energy deregulation in California.

California’s deregulation plan required the state’s three large investor-owned utilities—Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas and Electric—to sell part of their generating capacity, making them dependent on a competitive, open power generation market to effectively serve customers. It also discouraged companies from entering into long-term supply contracts with independent power producers to create a hedge against sudden price spikes. As a result, the utilities had to rely on the newly created spot wholesale market for about half of the electricity their customers demanded. Among the largest players in California’s energy market was Enron Energy Services (EES), based in Houston, Tex.

Peevey was a true believer in deregulation and saw enormous money could be made promising deep discounts on energy costs to large businesses in California. At one point, Peevey said he expected to market energy the way others market phone service. Like many of the players in California, Peevey’s NEV was an energy middleman. It bought wholesale power generated by private producers and resold it to large grocery and department store chains, manufacturers, and even the U.S. Dept. of Defense at a profit.

Peevey sold his energy services company to energy giant AES for $90 million.

Peevey sold his energy services company to energy giant AES for $90 million.

Peevey had the good fortune to sell his venture to AES Corp., the largest U.S. developer of power plants, in 1999 for $90 million in cash and stock. He exited the business just six months before the start of the California Energy Crisis, which caused massive price increases and rolling blackouts across the state between 2000 and 2001. State deregulation, lack of federal oversight, and illegal market manipulation by Enron and others enriched the deregulated energy trading market while causing the bankruptcy of PG&E and the near bankruptcy of SCE in early 2001.

What deregulation advocates promised would be a veritable free fall of energy prices in the free market turned out to be a catastrophe for California and its citizens. The state lost an estimated $45 billion from deregulation and the illegal acts of Enron, as well as the loss of more than 1,300 utility jobs. Enron produced little power itself and owned relatively little in the way of hard assets. Like the big banks and investment firms that created wealth through trading barely tangible assets, securities and debt, Enron was less akin to PG&E and more closely resembled Goldman Sachs. Enron relied on low margin energy trading and energy supply contracts. It existed in a Wall Street-like trading environment, buying power from producers to selling to utilities, taking a cut each time. The more transactions, especially those at a higher price, the better for Enron.

”Every trading company in the country has been feasting on California, and Enron is the shrewdest of them all. They are like sharks in a feeding frenzy,” said Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Action Network in San Diego in 2001. As he said that, Enron president Jeffery Skilling and family were spending two weeks sailing in the Virgin Islands. Skilling was deeply offended Californians were angry at Enron, which he called one of the great examples of the benefits of deregulation.

”We’re on the side of angels,” Skilling told Bloomberg News at the time. ”We’re taking on the entrenched monopolies. In every business we’ve been in, we’re the good guys.”

Today, Skilling is serving a reduced sentence of 14 years at the Montgomery Federal Prison Camp, Maxwell Air Force Base, Montgomery, Ala., and owes a $45 million fine.

Peevey never stopped advocating for deregulation, and his promise it would save Californians millions instead cost utility companies and the state tens of billions in losses. At the height of Enron’s market manipulation, Californians suffered multiple rolling blackouts while the energy markets made fortunes.

“This was like the perfect storm,” said former EES executive Steve Barth. “First, our traders are able to buy power for $250 in California and sell it to Arizona for $1,200 and then resell it to California for five times that. Then EES was able to go to these large companies and say ‘sign a 10-year contract with us and we’ll save you millions.'”

In a desperate bid to end the blackouts, utilities were eventually paying $1,400 per megawatt-hour for energy they used to produce for themselves for around $45.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ABC Nightline California Energy Crisis 1-2001.mp4

In 2000-2001, California was embroiled in an energy crisis, with rolling blackouts and enormous wholesale rate increases. At the heart of the problem – deregulation, which forced utilities to divest energy production assets and buy and sell power in a “free market” dominated by energy traders like Enron. ABC’s Nightline reported on the crisis in 2001, largely accepting the industry’s premise that the problem was insufficient supply and increased demand.

Vice President Dick Cheney blamed prior administrations for the crisis and believed more deregulation across the country would solve the problem, adding “there has been no significant increase in supply in California for about 10 years, although there’s been a 24 percent increase in the demand for electricity.”

These reports came ten months before the fall of Enron. Investigations would later reveal Cheney was wrong. Deregulation and a lack of oversight allowed Enron to manipulate prices undetected by federal regulators charged with monitoring the energy market. At the height of the crisis, Enron was exporting California-produced power to adjacent states, only to sell it back to increasingly desperate utilities like SCE and PG&E at markups that cost California $1-2 million a day. Despite claims the crisis was caused by a lack of capacity, at the height of the blackouts California had an installed generating capacity of 45GW and faced customer demand of just 28GW. (8:00)

Peevey Wins Presidency of CPUC and Has New Allies in Effort to Help AT&T, Power Companies

Peevey escaped the scorn heaped on energy companies and utilities because he cashed out of NEV just prior to the start of the Energy Crisis. Davis thought putting a former industry guy like Peevey in charge of the CPUC would be an asset because he would understood how legacy utilities like PG&E and SCE worked and would know how the new competitive players operated from his experience at NEV. Davis had previously brought Peevey on board as an unpaid personal consultant, helping him navigate the state’s energy crisis. By March, 2002 he was appointed by the governor to be a CPUC commissioner.

In late December it became clear Loretta Lynch was being forced out and Peevey was in. Davis reappointed Peevey to a full six-year term and designated him president, which pays $117,818 a year. Lynch remained at the CPUC as a commissioner until her term expired.

Gov. Gray Davis lost his job in a recall election, partly fueled by the California Energy Crisis.

Gov. Gray Davis lost his job in a recall election, partly fueled by the California Energy Crisis.

To further empower Peevey, Davis also appointed his own trusted cabinet secretary, Susan P. Kennedy, to a vacant seat on the commission. Kennedy was closely connected with the California Democratic Party. She was its executive director from 1991 to 1994, then served as communications director for U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of San Francisco from 1995 to 1998 before taking her post with Davis in 1999.

“Gov. Davis is cloning himself at the PUC to make sure he can get whatever he wants out of that agency,” complained Douglas Heller of the Santa Monica-based Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights Commission.

Both Kennedy and Peevey were regularly accused by consumer groups of turning the CPUC into an advocacy arm of some of the state’s largest utilities, usually at the expense of California’s consumers. When Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) got itself into trouble over safety breaches or regulatory violations, Peevey helped run defense and lessened the pain for the utility. Time for a rate increase? Peevey had the utilities’ backs.

Kennedy spent much of her three years at the CPUC (2003-2006) defending the interests of AT&T, the state’s largest telephone company. She helped head off efforts to enforce new consumer protection initiatives, watered down a cellular consumer’s “bill of rights” that would have disadvantaged AT&T and advocated for rate deregulation under the guise of competition. She was given prominent mention and support by the Koch Brothers-funded Heartland Institute after she was suddenly appointed chief of staff to Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in December 2005:

Susan Kennedy’s policy positions at the CPUC, on the other hand, were as free-market as one could hope for in California, and there’s no sign she’s giving up on reform. This should delight the technology industry and benefit consumers everywhere. Republicans horrified by Kennedy’s appointment might check their own commitment to reform, smaller government, and a strong business climate.

Consumer groups were glad to see Kennedy out of the CPUC. She resurfaced this year as a key player in the CPUC influence game, but more on her later in the series.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CBS News Incriminating Enron Tapes 2004.flv

About three years after the fall of Enron, audio tapes of phone conversations between Enron’s west coast energy traders revealed illegal market manipulation of electricity rates that went undetected under Michael Peevey. Despite the CPUC’s considerable resources, it took Eric Christiansen, assistant general counsel to the municipally owned Snohomish County Public Utilities District in Washington state to fight for, obtain, and make public the infamous Enron tapes. CBS News summarized in 2004 how Enron traders used California energy deregulation to their advantage, right under the noses of regulators. (3:38)

The Beginning of the End for Michael Peevey

The San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.

The San Bruno gas pipeline explosion.

The beginning of the end of Peevey’s reign over the CPUC began at 6:11 pm on September 9, 2010, in the San Francisco suburb of San Bruno, when a 30-inch diameter PG&E natural gas pipeline exploded in the middle of the Crestmoor residential neighborhood. The explosion and resulting fire was so enormous, first responders and the news media initially misreported it as a commercial jet crash. When it was all over, eight people were dead, 35 homes were leveled to the ground, and many others were damaged or uninhabitable.

Ironically, among the victims was Jacqueline Greig, 44. Greig worked for the CPUC, in a small, almost forgotten unit that advocates gas safety issues on behalf of consumers. Part of her job was reviewing PG&E’s plans to replace outdated natural gas pipelines like the one that exploded that early fall evening.

PG&E was implicated in the disaster, accused of operational deficiencies and reckless ignorance of public safety. In January, 2012, an independent audit from the State of California reported PG&E had also illegally diverted over $100 million from a safety operations fund for executive compensation and bonuses.

The federal investigation also accused the CPUC of not doing its job.

The National Transportation Safety Board found the CPUC “placed a blind trust in operators, to the detriment of public safety.”

Over 70 lawsuits were filed after the disaster, and critics accused the CPUC of being de facto members of PG&E’s defense team.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV San Francisco San Bruno Mayor Verbally Attacked by Peevey 9-10-13.flv

On the occasion of the third anniversary of the San Bruno explosion, CPUC president Michael Peevey allegedly verbally abused San Bruno’s mayor and city manager during a private meeting, upset that they used the CPUC offices as a backdrop for several press conferences critical of PG&E and how the CPUC enforced safety regulations. KNTV in San Francisco talked with San Bruno leaders who revealed what was said. Originally aired Sept. 10, 2013. (4:40)

In October 2012, a potentially embarrassing public hearing on the San Bruno pipeline blast to be held by the CPUC was suddenly suspended in favor of backroom negotiations to settle the case. Two months later, the CPUC decided Californians themselves should pay 55% of PG&E’s costs to inspect and upgrade suspect natural gas pipelines — estimated at $229 million.

After successfully getting ratepayers to cover most of the costs for PG&E’s mistakes, executives at the utility quickly pivoted to limiting the potential damage from anticipated fines yet to be levied by the CPUC over the San Bruno disaster. In September, 2014 PG&E learned it was facing an amount that could reach $1.4 billion. PG&E officials quickly called Peevey’s chief of staff – Carol Brown – to get her help moving San Bruno-related litigation to an administrative judge with a track record of being friendly to PG&E, with the hope the fines could be reduced or dropped.

That PG&E would reach out to regulators to discuss matters before the commission was not unusual, although it was improper. Utility executives knew they had plenty of opportunities to discuss whatever was on their mind with Peevey.

Image courtesy: KGO

Image courtesy: KGO

The fringe benefits of Peevey’s position seemed to go far beyond the responsibility of a utilities regulator earning a low six-figure salary. Peevey’s travels abroad were far beyond what most state regulators would consider reasonable. Peevey’s financial disclosures revealed he received gifts of $230,000 in international travel since he was appointed president of the CPUC in 2003. In all, Peevey spent 206 days abroad in at least 13 countries. On those trips, he was regularly joined by executives and lobbyists from some of the same companies that have business before the CPUC.

To avoid charges of a direct link between lobbyists and the CPUC president, special interests funneled money into a less obvious non-profit group called the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy (CFEE). Ostensibly created to help the state move beyond fossil fuels and promote energy efficiency, the group also helps executives and lobbyists move closer to lawmakers and regulators. CFEE plans regular junkets to some of the best vacation spots on the planet, where it holds “conferences” and tours energy-conservation and environmentally friendly projects that happen to be within driving distance.

These were must-attend events for Peevey, who regularly skipped CPUC business, hearings run by the state legislature, and other important events so he wouldn’t miss a flight abroad or a quick drive to an expensive Napa Valley resort.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV Peevey Priority Senate Hearing or Napa Winery 5-2-13.flv

In a hidden camera investigation, KNTV found California Public Utilities Commission president Michael Peevey at a conference in wine country instead of answering tough questions from senators in Sacramento. Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski caught up with an irritated Peevey in Napa. This story originally aired on May 2, 2013. (5:37)

While the state remained preoccupied with the San Bruno gas pipeline explosion, Peevey was packing for a flight to Madrid for a 12-day “travel-study excursion” that happened to hit the must-see stops in Sevilla and Barcelona, again sponsored by CFEE. Along for the ride was Peevey’s wife, two other state senators, several members of the state Assembly, CPUC commissioner Nancy Ryan, and executives from Chevron, Mirant (now GenOn, the owner of the Potrero power plant), Covanta Energy Corporation, Shell Energy North America, and engineering giant AECOM. PG&E and SCE executives were also in attendance, with plenty of time for fun and chats about the current priorities of the corporate utility business.

KNTV's Investigate Reporting unit has dogged Peevey for more than a year about alleged improprieties.

KNTV’s Investigate Reporting unit has dogged Peevey for more than a year about alleged improprieties. (Image: KNTV)

There isn’t much to see at CFEE headquarters at Pier 35 in San Francisco. Most of the activity takes place behind the scenes, where a long list of corporate members cut checks to CFEE to cover travel expenses for public officials. Among them include Verizon, Time Warner Cable, the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, Comcast, Chevron, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, AT&T, and PG&E. In return, executives often get to tag along on the exclusive junkets.

Although a rare trip to the less exclusive land of Inner Mongolia was a part of CFEE’s list of “travel studies” back in 2001, in recent years the destinations resemble the grand prize on a TV game show. Italy, Brazil, South Africa, Sweden and other destinations are covered, and you can be sure the guests are put up only in the finest hotels available.

“These ostensibly educational trips are essentially lobbying junkets, where utilities … wine and dine legislators,” said consumer group TURN spokeperson Mindy Spatt. The San Francisco Bay Guardian reported in 2011 TURN was raising the issue of these corporate-sponsored junkets several years ago when Peevey joined a CFEE trip attended by a representative of Southern California Edison “just coincidentally at the exact same time that he was penning an alternate decision in Edison’s rate case.” She added: “In TURN’s perspective, the commissioners need to be more in touch with what actual utility customers are experiencing, rather than in touch with the top restaurants in Brazil.”

In April 2013, CFEE paid the price for not keeping all their junkets far out of reach of the California media. KNTV, the NBC affiliate in San Francisco, followed Peevey to an exclusive Napa resort and a private reception at an upscale winery in St. Helena, all captured on hidden camera by the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit.

Peevey was supposed to appear that day before the California Senate Budget and Fiscal Review subcommittee to discuss his performance after growing revelations showed a conflict of interest between the CPUC and the utilities it regulates. Peevey skipped the hearing and attended the corporate-funded tour instead. His only obligation was to deliver a five-minute speech at the event. The rest of the time was his to hobnob.

The affair got underway at noon with a catered lunch for guests, including a representative from PG&E. More than two dozen Sacramento lawmakers also had ID badges waiting for them on arrival. By early evening, Peevey was on board a luxury tour bus driving through Napa Valley to reach St. Helena’s exclusive Merryvale winery, which was closed to the public that day to keep the curious away. That event lasted more than three hours and included 100 guests — a small number of lawmakers and regulators outnumbered by corporate lobbyists.

Peevey was less than happy to be ambushed by KNTV reporter Tony Kovaleski in the Merryvale parking lot at the end of the evening. Part of the exchange:

Merryvale: Closed to public scrutiny.

Merryvale: Closed to public scrutiny.

Kovaleski: What is the message you sent by coming here to Napa instead of going to speak to the senate?

Peevey: You are very antagonistic you know. You are reading a script.

Kovaleski: Sir, I am not reading a script. I want to give you an opportunity to respond.

Peevey: But your questions are the wrong questions.

Kovaleski: You spent time here with the utilities you are paid to regulate.

Peevey: There’s no utilities here that I know of.

Kovaleski: PG&E was here. We saw them on the list.

Peevey: Oh, there may have been one person, I don’t know. […] You poor son of a b****. You have a job to do. It’s pathetic what you are doing. It’s pathetic.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV San Francisco Flown Wined and Dined on Lobbyists Dimes 7-31-13.flv

In California it’s perfectly legal, but does that make it right? KNTV in San Francisco examines the ongoing free travel CPUC president Michael Peevey has accepted from nonprofits and special interest groups. Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski asks, are the trips simply gifts? Or are the gestures buying access to one of the most powerful people in California? This story aired on July 30, 2013. (6:58)

Although Peevey managed to withstand repeated questions about his travel habits and remained president of the commission during the tenure of current Gov. Jerry Brown, he had a lot harder time explaining away disclosed e-mails showing an even closer working relationship between himself and PG&E executives than anyone could have imagined.

65,000 Cringe-Worthy E-Mails Show Peevey as “a Micromanaging, Domineering Leader Who Appears to Have Overstepped His Role.”

cherryA Los Angeles Times story characterized the 65,000 released emails as presenting a “damaging portrait of former PUC President Michael Peevey as a micromanaging, domineering leader who appears to have overstepped his role. Peevey involved himself personally in internal decision-making at Pacific Gas & Electric Co. — the state’s largest utility — including its corporate leadership, political public relations strategy, safety policies and rate-setting cases, affecting billions of customer dollars, documents show.”

San Bruno city manager Connie Jackson was more concise: “I think we need to characterize it as collusion.”

“The bottom line is that I am amazed,” said Robert McCullough, an energy industry consultant and a former longtime manager at Portland General Electric in Oregon, who has analyzed thousands of the emails. “Peevey has passed beyond” improper contacts with PG&E, McCullough told the Times, and took on a “role where he was commenting and recommending promotions at PG&E. In effect, he was acting as a member of senior management” and “had clearly redefined the role of CPUC commissioner into a freewheeling advocate for the firm.”

Some of the most damaging emails involve PG&E vice president Brian Cherry, his immediate boss, and Peevey. Multiple emails show more than a passing interest on Peevey’s part on the management and business policies of PG&E. In one exchange, Peevey sought to arrange a quiet meeting with him and PG&E CEO Peter Darbee at Jardiniere, a French restaurant in San Francisco. On the agenda was the effectiveness of Darbee’s leadership of PG&E. It was seven months after the San Bruno pipeline exploded and San Bruno city officials were still blistering PG&E and others over the explosion and its cause.

Peevey seemed to think he played a role in the sudden decision Darbee took to retire just a few weeks later. In a follow-up email to Cherry, Peevey took some credit for the leadership change.

“The board did the right thing (with a little nudge) this morning,” Peevey wrote. “Maybe the beginning of a new, better leaf.”

Another email concerned a list of tentative personnel promotions at PG&E. Peevey wanted and got a copy of the list and then later replied he was thankful PG&E ran the names of the candidates “by me.”

To help keep an industry-friendly CPUC intact, Peevey privately e-mailed Cherry with tactical advice about how PG&E could effectively lobby Gov. Brown about forthcoming commission appointments.

pgeBut Peevey was also willing to use his connection with Cherry to shakedown PG&E for money for his non-profit group and to fight a ballot initiative he didn’t like.

Peevey leaned on Cherry in one email to donate at least $1 million to help fight a measure that would have suspended a California law limiting greenhouse gas emissions. PG&E gave half that, but probably could have saved its money because California voters shot down the measure by themselves in November 2010.

Peevey also wanted a $100,000 contribution from PG&E to throw a 100th anniversary celebration party for the CPUC. Peevey suggested a check on his desk would go a long way as commissioners pondered a PG&E rate hike request already before the commission. After all, Edison and AT&T had already confirmed they will contribute.

cpucCherry understood what was expected, and wrote his boss, “I told him I got the message.” PG&E also got a table… for $20,000.

“This is nothing less than quid pro quo deal-making with ratepayer dollars,” said Tom Long, an attorney with the The Utility Reform Network. “I honestly have never seen such smoking-gun evidence of corruption at the highest levels of the commission.”

Peevey wasn’t only friendly to giant power utilities. Under his leadership, the CPUC gave AT&T wide latitude and broad deregulation over its cable television and telephone business. The commission has also granted cable system ownership transfers with a virtual rubber stamp, and customers complain the CPUC has an uncanny knack of taking the provider’s side in consumer complaints.

The revelations lead to a scathing editorial in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Peevey’s arrogance and sense of infallibility led him to conclude that rules were for other people. He didn’t just cross the lines of propriety in his dealings with utilities; he obliterated them. No one will be surprised if state and federal investigators find more scandals in coming weeks and months. Abuse of power is likely to be habitual when powerful people think they’re above the law.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV San Francisco E-Mail Scandal at PSC 11-12-14.flv

The NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit has discovered that CPUC president Michael Peevey failed to file the state-required disclosure form detailing successful requests for money from PG&E. KNTV takes a look at the e-mails exchanged between Peevey and top executives at PG&E. The Fair Political Practices Commission has joined the U.S. Attorney and the California Attorney General in investigating Peevey. Chief Investigative Reporter Tony Kovaleski reports in a story that aired on November 12, 2014. (6:37)

Everyone Wants to Be a PG&E Helper

Peevey was clearly not the only point of contact PG&E had with the CPUC. Released emails show a series of messages between Cherry and Peevey’s chief of staff, Carol Brown. It quickly becomes clear Brown was looking out more for the interests of PG&E than California ratepayers.

Brown

Brown

Brown told Cherry she would help him whenever possible, and that included advice on how a top PG&E official could effectively obfuscate in a response to an open “public request for information.”

Losing complaints or giving inaccurate answers to consumer inquiries that help steer consumers away from pestering energy and telecom companies appears to be business as usual at the CPUC. An April report from the California State Auditor found the CPUC routinely misclassify almost 40 percent of complaints they receive from the public, leaving the agency ill-equipped to properly address consumer grievances.

“In 17 of the 45 complaints we selected and reviewed for accuracy, we found that the branch did not correctly categorize the complaints,” auditors found. “As a result, the branch’s complaint data do not accurately reflect the complaints it receives, and the branch is providing users with inaccurate data.”

But even more damaging was Cherry’s need for Brown’s help to choose a friendly administrative law judge for a pending PG&E rate case. Cherry got his wish and it appeared PG&E’s $1.3 billion rate case was on its way to fast approval, at least until the email exchange went public and accusations of judge shopping emerged. The case has now been reassigned.

“I’m Not Here to Answer Your Goddamn Questions. Now Shut Up — Shut Up!”

Occasionally, Peevey’s domineering temper emerged in public and in May 2014, Mike Aguirre, former San Diego City Attorney got to see it on full display.

He appeared at a hearing representing a ratepayer who was upset about a proposed settlement between utility companies and consumer advocacy groups that required ratepayers to cover $3.3 billion of the $4.7 billion bill to decommission one of the state’s nuclear plants. Like many other disputes taken before the CPUC, this one was settled in a secret meeting.

Aguierre wanted Peevey to go on record that SCE, his former employer, did not have any contact with Peevey.

“I’m not here to answer your goddamn questions. Now shut up — shut up!” yelled Peevey in response.

Despite the slow motion public relations train wreck, Gov. Brown continued to stand by Peevey. Peevey stood by business as usual.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KGTV San Diego CPUC president curses out San Diego attorney Mike Aguirre 5-22-14.mp4

KGTV in San Diego covered a May 2014 hearing that deteriorated after a San Diego attorney asked Peevey some questions about a secret meeting held between the CPUC and Peevey’s former employer that left San Diego ratepayers holding the bag — paying the bulk of the costs to decommission one of the state’s nuclear power plants. Peevey let loose. (2:23)

The CPUC’s Non-Neutral Net Neutrality Hearings

Peevey stares down Commissioner Carla Peterman

Peevey stares down Commissioner Carla Peterman

In the telecom sector, the most visible evidence that backroom dealings were underway at the CPUC occurred during the debate on Net Neutrality. The most awkward moment for the CPUC was at a September 11, 2014 meeting dominated by discussions about the open Internet.

The very sparsely attended public meeting ran several hours before the CPUC finally decided to vote on a resolution urging the FCC to adopt strong Net Neutrality regulations and impose Title II reclassification of broadband as a common carrier public utility.

The uneventful vote began with “Yes” votes from Commissioners Carla Peterman, Mike Florio, and Catherine Sandoval. Peevey and Commissioner Michael Picker both voted “No” and it would seem to the half-dazed audience soaking in an afternoon of arcane procedural matters that there was a clear 3-2 vote in favor of strong Net Neutrality.

But then something curious happened. Peevey declared, “That’s what’s adopted. All the other pieces go with that. There is no need for any other vote on any other matters.” It all seemed jovial enough until Peevey leaned to his right and stared down Peterman, adding, “unless anyone wants to reconsider their vote… rather quickly.”

Peterman seemed to think the chairman was joking and quickly declared, “No,” suggesting she was completely satisfied with her vote and the meeting plodded on.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CPUC Net Neutrality Hearing Vote 9-11-14.flv

The CPUC seemed to be holding a routine vote on a resolution supporting strong Net Neutrality, including reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II. But moments after the 9/11/14 vote, Peevey seemed to jovially stare down a commissioner who appeared to vote in a way he didn’t approve or expect. (2:32)

At the end of the agenda, just when the audience was certain the meeting was coming to an end, Peevey suddenly called for a five-minute “rest break.” Observers suggested that was odd because with no more business before the commission, calling the proceeding to a close seemed like a more logical idea. The five-minute break stretched into 10, 15, and eventually more than 20 minutes. As Peevey reconvened the meeting, he immediately prompted Peterman to her microphone.

Peterman

Peterman

“I want to ask Carla, commissioner Peterman, to say something here,” Peevey said.

For several minutes, Peterman verbally stumbled her way trying to backtrack her earlier strong support for Net Neutrality, now seeking to abstain from the vote altogether. Peevey’s tenor suggested he well understood Peterman’s intentions in advance and helped shepherd a new vote past the commission’s legal advisers.

Peterman seemed to suggest that because the commission was closely divided on the matter, more time should be taken to develop a statement of unanimity that all five commissioners could agree on. But the end effect of a 2-2 vote with one abstention would leave a final statement advocating Net Neutrality under Title II in the gutter.

Peterman, Peevey, and the commission’s legal advisers tried to navigate through the confusing vote changing procedure for several minutes. Commissioner Sandoval spoke up to make sure that statements of unanimity were not a new precedent at the commission, but seemed to resign herself that it would be the case for this particular resolution.

To any observer, it seemed clear Peterman was strongly lobbied during the “five-minute break” to change her vote, perhaps by telecom lobbyists or by Peevey himself. The end effect was neutralizing the state of California’s participation in the Net Neutrality debate with a virtual abstention. Although Peevey promised to return to the matter of Net Neutality two weeks after the Sept. 11 meeting, Peterman, who initially seemed concerned about moving forward with the discussion, later asked it be postponed for an extra two weeks. On Oct. 16, it was abruptly dropped from the meeting agenda altogether.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CPUC Net Neutrality Hearing Vote Change 9-11-14.flv

After nearly three hours of the hearing had passed, watch as Peevey declares a five-minute “rest break” that stretched beyond 20 minutes. When the commission reconvened, Commissioner Peterman suddenly wanted to change her vote, neutering the resolution the commission voted to support an hour earlier in support of Net Neutrality. Despite Peterman’s claims of urgency regarding the issue of Net Neutrality, Peevey dropped the issue from the agenda a month later. (11:30)

Tracy Rosenberg, the executive director of Oakland-based Media Alliance, complained that the CPUC ignored more than 3,000 Californians that wrote comments to the CPUC about Net Neutrality.

“What’s going on here, folks?” Rosenberg asked.

“I got it,” came a terse response from Peevey, who offered no other comment.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CPUC Tracy Rosenberg Media Alliance Comments on Net Neutrality 10-16-14.flv

Tracy Rosenberg from Media Alliance rose to protest the CPUC’s sudden drop of Net Neutrality from the agenda. Peevey dismissed her remarks, saying “got it” before quickly moving on to another speaker. (2:17)

Out With the Old, In With the New, But the Same Lobbyists Are Still There

In October 2014, Peevey relieved the governor from being pushed to take action to finally get rid of him. Peevey read a brief statement announcing he was headed for retirement.

“I will not seek reappointment to the CPUC when my term expires at the end of the year,” Peevey said. “Twelve years as president is enough.”

It was more than enough for San Bruno mayor Jim Ruane who said he was “extremely happy” Peevey was leaving. “It’s a tremendous victory, not just for the City of San Bruno, but for all citizens in the State of California. Under Peevey’s leadership, the CPUC has served as a pawn of state utilities and an agency marked by collusion, dysfunction and, we learned this week, possible corruption.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KNTV San Francisco Michael Peevey Last Day at CPUC 12-18-14.flv

He’s going. Colleagues compared Michael Peevey to President Franklin Roosevelt and the Pope in their farewell addresses to the longest-serving CPUC president in agency history. Detractors thought he could get away with anything. KNTV continues its series about the California Public Utilities Commission in a story that aired on Dec. 18, 2014. (4:20)

Today, Peevey is out of office, replaced by former commissioner-turned-president Michael Picker. But that may prove to be a distinction without much difference, according to a series of revelations published in the San Diego Union-Tribune that suggest Picker is being groomed by the same industry lobbyists that surrounded Peevey. More details about that and where the CPUC is headed next coming in the next part of our series.

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.

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