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Cable Industry’s Profitable Money Party Under Threat As Net Neutrality, FCC Oversight Looms

Moffett

Moffett

Nearly 20 years after the 1996 Telecom Act deregulated much of the cable industry, the renewed threat of increased consumer protection and oversight by the Federal Communications Commission and the dwindling chance regulators will approve the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable has increased pessimism about guaranteed high cable industry profits on Wall Street.

Craig Moffett, senior analyst at MoffettNathanson has departed from his usual optimism about the prospects of cable industry stocks and downgraded Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications this morning to “neutral,” suggesting the Title II reclassification of broadband could eventually lead to FCC mandated price cuts on broadband after the agency finalizes Net Neutrality regulations.

The cable industry had maintained high hopes for the Republican majority in Congress to trample Net Neutrality and allow the cable industry to continue boosting rates and introducing other pricing schemes including usage-based billing, but Moffett has grown increasingly convinced Republicans cannot override President Obama’s veto power if Congress attempts to change or end FCC oversight over the broadband business.

The cable industry has grown increasingly panicked over a new spirit of activism inside the FCC, particularly after FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler began asserting their “worst-case scenarios” for broadband speed and Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has warned Net Neutrality and Title II would stifle innovation. But Moffett fears it will more likely stifle profits.

money“It would be naïve to suggest that the implication of Title II, particularly when viewed in the context of the FCC’s repeated findings that the broadband market is non-competitive, doesn’t introduce a real risk of price regulation,” Moffett wrote. “Not tomorrow, of course, so yes, near term numbers won’t change. But terminal growth rate assumptions need to be lowered. Multiples will have to come down.”

Moffett, who had been optimistic about the likely approval of the merger deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is much less so today.

His earlier 70-30 odds in favor of the merger are now down to 60-40. The headwind of negative press and the reclassification of broadband to a minimum speed of 25Mbps poses considerable risk the deal will be ruled anti-competitive.

Moffett claims the cable industry was also banking on jacking up prices for Internet access, already a very profitable service, to cover reduced profits from cable television. But now the FCC will be watching.

“In the past, changes to broadband pricing would have been the natural remedy,” Moffett said. “That avenue may be no longer open.”

Wall Street Turning Against Comcast-Time Warner Merger: “We Believe It Will Be Blocked”

Greenfield

Greenfield

An important Wall Street analyst has publicly written what many have thought offline for the past six months — the chances of regulators approving a merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable are growing less and less each day that passes.

Rich Greenfield from BTIG Research has grown increasingly pessimistic about the odds of Comcast winning approval of its effort to buy Time Warner Cable.

Despite the unified view from the executive suites of both cable companies that the merger is a done-deal just waiting for pro forma paperwork to get handled by the FCC and Department of Justice, Greenfield has seen enough evidence to declare “the tide has turned against the cable monopoly in the past 12 months,” and now places the odds of a merger approval at 30 percent or less.

“Since we realized the inevitability of Title II regulation of broadband in December 2014, we have grown increasingly concerned that Comcast and Time Warner Cable will not be allowed to merge,” Greenfield wrote.

The claim from both cable companies that since Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not directly compete with each other, there in no basis on which the government could block the transaction, may become a moot point.

There are three factors that Greenfield believes will likely deliver a death-blow to the deal:

  • Monopsony Power
  • Broadband Market Share & Control
  • Aftershocks from the Net Neutrality Debate

btigMonopsony power is wielded when one very large buyer of a product or service becomes so important to the seller, it can dictate its own terms and win deals that no other competitor can secure for itself.

Comcast is already the nation’s largest cable operator. Time Warner Cable is second largest. One would have to combine most of the rest of the nation’s cable companies to create a force equally important to cable programming networks.

As Stop the Cap! testified last summer before the Public Service Commission in New York, allowing a merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable would secure the combined cable company volume discounts on cable programming that no other competitor could negotiate for itself. That would deter competition by preventing start-ups from entering the cable television marketplace because they would be at a severe disadvantage with higher wholesale programming expenses that would probably make their retail prices uncompetitive.

Even worse, large national cable programming distributors could dictate terms on what kinds of programming was available.

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC recognized the danger of monopsony market power and in the 1990s set a 30% maximum market share limit on the number of video customers one company could control nationally. That number was set slightly above the national market share held by the largest cable company at the time — first known as TCI, then AT&T Broadband, and today Comcast. Comcast sued the FCC claiming the cap was unconstitutional and won twice – first in 2001 when a federal court dismissed the rule as arbitrary and again in 2009 when it threw out the FCC’s revised effort.

Comcast itself recognized the 30% cap as an important bellwether for regulators watching the concentration of market power through mergers and acquisitions. When it agreed to buy Time Warner Cable, it volunteered to spin-off enough customers of the combined company to stay under the 30% (now voluntary) cap.

Greenfield argues the importance of concentration in the video programming marketplace has been overtaken by concerns about broadband.

“While Comcast tried to steer the government to evaluate the Time Warner deal on the old paradigm of video subscriber share, it is increasingly clear that DOJ and FCC approval/denial will come down to how they view the competitive landscape of broadband and whether greater broadband market share serves the public interest,” Greenfield wrote.

comcast whoppersIf the Comcast merger deal ultimately fails, the company may have only itself to blame.

Last year Comcast faced intense scrutiny over its interconnection agreements with companies that handle traffic for large content producers like Netflix. Comcast customers faced a deterioration in Netflix streaming quality after Comcast refused to upgrade certain connections to keep up with growing demand. Netflix was eventually forced to establish a direct paid connection agreement with the cable operator, despite the fact Netflix offers cable operators free equipment and connections for just that purpose.

That event poured gasoline on the smoldering debate over Net Neutrality and helped fuel support for a strong Open Internet policy that would give the FCC authority to check connection agreements and ban paid online fast lanes.

Seeing how Comcast affected broadband service for millions of subscribers across dozens of states could shift the debate away from any local impacts of the merger and refocus it on how many broadband customers across the country a single company should manage.

Comcast will control 50% or more of the national broadband market when applying the FCC’s newly defined definition of broadband: 25/3Mbps.

That rings antitrust and anticompetitive alarm bells for any regulator.

Greenfield notes that changing the definition of broadband will dramatically reshape market share. It will nearly eliminate DSL as a suitable competitor and leave Americans with a choice between cable broadband and Verizon FiOS, community owned fiber networks, Google, and a small part of AT&T’s U-verse footprint. If those competitors don’t exist in your community, you will have no choice at all.

cap comcastEven Comcast admits cable broadband enjoys a near-monopoly at 25/3Mbps speeds. controlling 89.7% of the market as of December 2013.

“If regulators take the ‘national’ approach to evaluating broadband competition, the FCC’s redefinition would appear to put the deal in even greater jeopardy,” Greenfield writes. “Beyond the market share of existing subscribers, the larger issue is availability.  Whether or not a current subscriber takes 25/3Mbps or better, the far more relevant question is if a consumer wanted that level of speed do they have a choice beyond their local cable operator?  As of year-end 2013, Comcast’s own filing illustrates that in 63% of their footprint post-Time Warner Cable, they were the only consumer choice for 25 Mbps broadband (we suspect even higher now).”

“With Comcast’s scale both before and especially after the Time Warner Cable transaction, they become ‘the only way’ for a majority of Americans to receive content/programming that requires a robust broadband connection,” Greenfield warned.

Even worse, to protect its video business, a super-sized Comcast will be tempted to introduce usage caps that will deliver a built-in advantage to its own services.

“Over time, the fear is that Comcast will favor its own IP-delivered video services versus third parties, similar to how it is able to offer Comcast IP-based video services as a ‘managed’ service that does not count against bandwidth caps, while third-party video services that look similar count against bandwidth caps,” he wrote. “The natural inclination will be for [Comcast] to protect their business (think usage based caps that only apply to outsiders, peering/interconnection fees, etc.)”

“With the overlay of the populist uprising driving government policy, it is hard to imagine how regulators could approve the Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction at this point,” Greenfield concludes. “Comcast continues to try to get the government to look to the past to get its deal approved.  But the framework is about not only what is current, but what the future will look like – especially in a rapidly changing broadband world.”

Source: Cox Preparing to Expand Gigabit Service in Phoenix/Omaha, Boost Budget Broadband Speeds

COX_RES_RGBCox Communications is planning to expand its gigabit residential broadband service in Phoenix and Omaha and will be increasing the speeds of its cheapest Internet tiers to stay competitive with CenturyLink’s discounted DSL.

A source inside Cox told Broadband Reports the speed changes will begin later this month and will take about six weeks to reach all of Cox’s service areas across the country.

  • Starter Internet ($34.99 – 50GB usage cap), now offering 1Mbps/384kbps will increase to 5/1Mbps;
  • Essential Internet ($48.99 – 100GB usage cap), now 5/1Mbps will be increased to 15/2Mbps.

Cox also offers Internet Preferred ($66.99 – 250GB usage cap) offering 50/5Mbps and Internet Premier ($77.99 – 300GB usage cap) with 100/10Mbps. Some markets also offer Internet Ultimate ($99.95 – 400GB usage cap) with 150/20Mbps service.

The company’s gigabit plan, Gigablast, is being sold for $99 a month ($70 if bundled with cable television). It has a 1TB usage cap. For now, the service is delivered to a very limited number of homes (about 5,000) over special fiber connections serving primarily wealthy enclaves and new housing developments. The bulk of Cox’s gigabit service expansion this year is expected to cover about 150,000 homes where additional fiber service will be deployed. But most Cox customers will only see the fastest speeds made available in 2016 when DOCSIS 3.1 will allow Cox to use its existing coaxial cable infrastructure to deliver super fast speeds.

Cox customers who exceed their usage allowance are usually warned by letter and asked to upgrade to a higher tier of service. But Stop the Cap! readers who subscribe to Cox tell us the company usually backs off if you threaten to cancel service over the matter.

Time Warner Cable Will Extend Maxx Upgrades to 75% of Its Markets by 2016, If Comcast Merger Dies

twc maxxTime Warner Cable plans to reach 75 percent of its customers with Maxx service upgrades offering broadband speed boosts up to 300/20Mbps for the same price it charges for 50Mbps by the end of 2016, assuming a merger with Comcast does not result in the plans being shelved.

Time Warner Cable customers will also escape Comcast’s ongoing experiments with usage caps and usage-based billing if the company remains independent, as Time Warner Cable executives continue to maintain that usage pricing should only be offered to customers that want it.

Company officials discussed the ongoing investments in Maxx upgrades during a quarterly results conference call with investors held earlier today.

CEO Rob Marcus indicated Time Warner Cable will choose markets for Maxx upgrades based on what kind of competition the cable company faces in each city.

“Our aim is to have 75% of our footprint enabled with Maxx […] by the end of [2016], and my guess is we’re continuing to roll it out beyond that,” said Marcus. “So the only question is prioritization, and obviously as we think about where to go first, competitive dynamics are a factor. So that includes Google, although it’s not explosively dictated by where Google decides to go. In fact I think we announced the Carolinas before Google did their announcement this week. So competitors are certainly relevant obviously.”

Time Warner Cable has targeted its Maxx upgrades in areas where its principal competitors — AT&T, Google, and Verizon — have made or announced service and speed improvements. Maxx upgrades are now complete in New York City and Los Angeles. Much of Austin, Tex., is also finished, where both AT&T GigaPower U-verse and Google Fiber plan to offer gigabit service.

This year, Time Warner will focus on bringing Maxx to Charlotte, Dallas, Hawaii, Kansas City, Raleigh, San Antonio and San Diego. Charlotte, Raleigh, and Kansas City will eventually see high-speed competition from both Google Fiber and AT&T U-verse. Time Warner is facing increasingly aggressive competition from Hawaiian Telcom, San Antonio is on Google’s short list and will also likely see faster U-verse, and San Diego is on AT&T’s list for GigaPower upgrades.

Time Warner spent $4.1 billion on capital expenses in 2014, up nearly $900 million above 2013 spending. Most of the money went to network upgrades in Maxx markets where new set-top boxes and cable modems are being provided to customers. Marcus refused to offer any guidance about how much the company intends to spend on upgrades in 2015, citing its looming merger with Comcast.

Marcus

Marcus

Not every city will benefit from network upgrades. Although 2/3rds of Time Warner Cable markets will get Maxx over the next two years, several will have to make do with the service they have now. The Time Warner Cable markets most at risk of being left off the upgrade list also have the weakest competition:

  • Yuma, Ariz.
  • Nebraska
  • Wisconsin
  • Eastern Ohio & Pennsylvania (except Cleveland)
  • Binghamton, Utica, Watertown, Elmira, and Rochester, N.Y.
  • Kentucky
  • West Virginia
  • South Carolina
  • Western Massachusetts
  • Maine

If the merger with Comcast is approved, the Maxx upgrade effort is likely to be shelved or modified by the new owners as customers are gradually shifted to Comcast’s traditional broadband plans.

Marcus also continued to shoot down compulsory usage-based billing and usage caps questions coming from Wall Street analysts. Marcus reminded the audience Time Warner Cable already offers optional usage-based pricing packages, and they have no intention of forcing customers to accept usage billing or caps.

“I think the ultimate success of usage based pricing will depend on customer uptake and customers’ interest in availing themselves of a usage based tier versus unlimited tier,” said Marcus. In earlier conference calls, Marcus admitted only a tiny fraction of Time Warner customers have shown any interest in usage allowances. The overwhelming majority prefer flat rate service.

In contrast, Comcast’s broadband customers in several southern cities continue to be unwilling participants in that cable company’s ongoing usage billing trials.

Google Fiber Headed to Atlanta, Charlotte, Raleigh-Durham, N.C., Nashville; Avoids Verizon FiOS Country

atlanta fiberGoogle has announced it will bring its fiber broadband service to four new cities — Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Raleigh-Durham, N.C. and Nashville, Tenn., according to a report on Google’s Fiber blog.

In a familiar pattern, Google recently sent invitations to local news organizations in those four cities to attend events this week, without identifying the subject.

As with earlier similar events, the topic was the local launch of Google Fiber.

The cities were all on Google’s 2014 list for possible expansion. Those left out (for now) include Salt Lake City, San Antonio, Phoenix, Portland, Ore., and San Jose, Calif. Google recently told city officials in those communities it was still contemplating projects, but remain undecided for now.

After the announcements this week, it will take at least one year before Google is ready to light up the first “fiberhoods” in the cities, usually selected based on customer signups.

Google will challenge Comcast and AT&T in Georgia, Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink in North Carolina, and Comcast and AT&T in Nashville. In Atlanta, the fiber build will not only include Atlanta, but also Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, College Park, Decatur, East Point, Hapeville, Sandy Springs and Smyrna.

expansion

Google will offer unlimited gigabit broadband service for an expected $70 a month. AT&T limits U-verse customers to 250GB in Georgia and Tennessee, and Comcast has subjected both Atlanta and Nashville to its compulsory usage cap experiments, setting a monthly usage allowance at 300GB.

Time Warner Cable does not limit broadband customers in North Carolina, but the Republican-dominated state government is also hostile to community-owned broadband, making it unlikely either Raleigh-Durham or Charlotte will see public broadband competition anytime soon.

Fiber-is-comingGoogle officials have also been reportedly sensitive to local government red tape and regulation. In Portland, the Journal reports Google has put any fiber expansion on hold there because Oregon tax-assessment rules would value Google’s property based on the value of their intangible assets, such as brand. That would cause Google’s property taxes in Oregon to soar. Until the Oregon state legislature makes it clear such rules would not apply to Google Fiber, there will be no Google Fiber in Portland.

Google has also once again shown its reluctance to consider any community or region where Verizon FiOS now provides fiber optic service. The entire northeastern United States, largely dominated by Verizon, has been “no-go” territory for Google, with no communities making it to their list for possible future expansion.

Among the collateral damage are Verizon-less communities in northern New England served by FairPoint Communications and Comcast and portions of western New York served by Frontier Communications where Time Warner Cable has overwhelming dominance with 700,000 subscribers out of 875,000 total households in the Buffalo and Rochester markets.

Wall Street continues to grumble about the Google Fiber experiment, concerned about the high cost of fiber infrastructure and the potential it will create profit-killing price wars that will cut prices for consumers but cost every competitor revenue.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSOC Charlotte Mayor Google Fiber is coming to Charlotte 1-27-15.flv

Charlotte city manager Ron Carlee spoke exclusively to WSOC-TV’s Jenna Deery about how Charlotte won Google over to bring its fiber service to the community. Having a close working relationship between city infrastructure agencies and Google was essential, as was cutting red tape and bureaucracy. (2:10)

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