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Big Cable, Telcos Spent $42 Million In 2013-2014 Lobbying for Deregulation, Against Net Neutrality

AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and the cable industry’s chief lobbying group spent $42.8 million during the 2013-2014 election cycle to weigh in on issues including burying Net Neutrality, outlawing community broadband competition, winning tax breaks for themselves, and avoiding consumer protection regulations.

A Common Cause analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Institute for Money in State Politics shows that the usual suspects poured money into political coffers on the state and federal level to influence lawmakers.

2014-contributions-from-net-1

On the federal level, murky party committees received the largest individual checks: a total of $862,223 for House and Senate Republicans and $552,605 for Democrats. Individual members of Congress also received their own contributions, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner ($98,175 from Comcast) and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor ($88,650 from Comcast, TWC, and National Cable and Telecom. Assn.) Pryor will need to spend his contributions quickly. He was de-elected by Arkansas voters last Tuesday.

Net Neutrality is a major topic on the minds of the cable and telco companies, as is ongoing deregulation and decommissioning rural landline service, and pushback on revelations AT&T and Verizon were only too happy to turn over your phone records to the federal government.

In the states, the bigger the issues coming up in the legislature, the bigger the campaign checks. In Florida, AT&T is the state’s single largest source of political donations, giving $1.53 million to state lawmakers in the past year and another $660,000 to Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his appointed heads of state agencies. AT&T is lobbying for eliminating Florida’s telecommunications tax, win the right to place cell towers wherever they wish without much interference from local officials, and further deregulation. Most of AT&T’s money goes into the hands of the state’s Republicans.

In New York and California, Democrats got a major chunk of money from Comcast and Time Warner Cable — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo received $60,800 each from both Comcast and Time Warner Cable (totaling $121,600). California Governor Jerry Brown received $54,400 from Time Warner Cable and $27,200 from Comcast. Both states are reviewing the merger of the two companies this year. AT&T and Verizon are also major donors – AT&T wants to dismantle the rural telephone network in California and Verizon is trying to convince the New York legislature to approve its own rural landline replacement – Voice Link. It also wants reduced scrutiny of its landline performance in New York and more access to New York City buildings where it faces resistance from property owners who want compensation from Verizon to install FiOS.

2014-contributions-from-net

Republican Victory Sparks Potential Lobbying Frenzy Rewriting/Deregulating Nation’s Telecom Laws

Thune

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) will assume the leadership of the Senate Commerce Committee in January.

The Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate could have profound implications on U.S. telecommunications law as Congress contemplates further deregulation of broadcasting, broadband, and telecom services while curtailing oversight powers at the Federal Communications Commission.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), expected to assume leadership over the Senate Commerce Committee in January, has already signaled interest in revising the 1996 Communications Act, which was built on the premise that deregulation would increase competition in the telecommunications marketplace.

“Our staff has looked at some things we might do in the area of telecommunications reform,” Thune told Capital Journal.” That hasn’t been touched in a long time. A lot has changed. The last time that the telecom sector of the economy was reformed was 1996, and I think in that bill there was one mention of the Internet. So it’s a very different world today.”

Republicans have complained the 1996 Telecom Act is dependent on dividing up services into different regulatory sectors and subjecting them to different regulatory treatment. In the current Net Neutrality debate, for example, a major component of the dispute involves which regulatory sector broadband should be classified under — “an information service” subject to few regulations or oversight or Title 2, a “telecommunications service” that has regulatory protections for consumers who have few choices in service providers.

Republicans have advocated streamlining the rules and eliminating “broad prescriptive rules” that can have “unintended consequences for innovation and investment.” Most analysts read that as a signal Republicans want further deregulation across the telecom industry to remove “uncertainty for innovators.”

Republicans have been particularly hostile towards imposing strong Net Neutrality protections, particularly if it involves reclassification of broadband as a “telecommunications service” under Title 2 of the Communications Act. Most expect Thune and his Republican colleagues will oppose any efforts to enact Net Neutrality policies that open the door for stronger FCC regulatory oversight.

The move to re-examine the Communications Act will result in an enormous stimulation of the economy, if you happen to run a D.C. lobbying firm. Just broaching the subject of revising the nation’s telecommunications laws stimulates political campaign contributions and intensified lobbying efforts. From 1997-2004, telecommunications companies advocating for more deregulation spent more than $44 million in direct soft money and PAC donations — $18 million to Democrats, $27 million to Republicans. During the same period, eight companies and trade groups in the broadcasting, cable and telephone sector collectively spent more than $400 million on lobbying activities alone, according to Common Cause.

Reopening the Telecom Act for revision is expected to generate intense lobbying activity, as Congress contemplates subjects like eliminating or curtailing FCC oversight over broadband, how wireless spectrum is distributed to wireless companies, how many radio and television stations a company can own or control, maintaining or strengthening bans on community broadband networks, oversight of cable television packages, and compensation for broadcast stations vacating frequencies to make room for more cellular networks.

Common Cause notes ordinary citizens had little say over the contents of the ’96 Act and consumer group objections were largely ignored. When the bill was eventually signed into law by President Bill Clinton, its sweeping provisions affected almost every American:

Good times at K Street lobbying firms are ahead

Good times at K Street lobbying firms are ahead

BROADCASTING

  1. The 96 Act lifted the limit on how many radio stations one company could own. The cap had been set at 40 stations. It made possible the creation of radio giants like Clear Channel, with more than 1,200 stations, and led to a substantial drop in the number of minority station owners, homogenization of playlists, and less local news. Today, few listeners can tell the difference between radio stations with similar formats, regardless of where they are located.
  2. Lifted from 12 the number of local TV stations any one corporation could own, and expanded the limit on audience reach. One company had been allowed to own stations that reached up to a quarter of U.S. TV households. The Act raised that national cap to 35 percent. These changes spurred huge media mergers and greatly increased media concentration. Together, just five companies – Viacom, the parent of CBS, Disney, owner of ABC, FOX-News Corp., Comcast-NBC, and Time Warner now control 75 percent of all prime-time viewing.
  3. The Act gave broadcasters, for free, valuable digital TV licenses that could have brought in up to $70 billion to the federal treasury if they had been auctioned off. Broadcasters, who claimed they deserved these free licenses because they serve the public, have largely ignored their public interest obligations, failing to provide substantive local news and public affairs reporting and coverage of congressional, local and state elections. Many television stations have discontinued local news programming altogether or have relied on partnerships with other stations in the same market to produce news programming for them. Most local television stations are now owned by out-of-state conglomerates that control dozens of television stations and now expect to be compensated by viewers watching them on cable or satellite television.
  4. The Act reduced broadcasters’ accountability to the public by extending the term of a broadcast license from five to eight years, and made it more difficult for citizens to challenge those license renewals.

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

  1. The 1996 Act preserved telephone monopoly control of their networks, allowing them to refuse new entrants who depend on telco infrastructure to sell their services.
  2. The Act was designed to promote increased competition but also allowed major telephone companies to refuse to compete outside of their home territories. It also allowed Bell operating companies to buy each other, resulting in just two remaining major operators — AT&T and Verizon.

CABLE

  1. The ’96 Act stripped away the ability of local franchising authorities and the FCC to maintain oversight of cable television rates. Immediately after the ’96 Act took effect, rate increases accelerated.
  2. The Act permitted the FCC to ease cable-broadcast cross-ownership rules. As cable systems increased the number of channels, the broadcast networks aggressively expanded their ownership of cable networks with the largest audiences. In the past, large cable operators like Time Warner, TCI, Cablevision and Comcast owned most cable networks. Broadcast networks acquired much of their ownership interests. Ninety percent of the top 50 cable stations are owned by the same parent companies that own the broadcast networks, challenging the notion that cable is any real source of competition.

net-neutral-cartoon“Those who advocated the Telecommunications Act of 1996 promised more competition and diversity, but the opposite happened,” said Common Cause president Chellie Pingree back in 1995. “Citizens, excluded from the process when the Act was negotiated in Congress, must have a seat at the table as Congress proposes to revisit this law.”

Above all, the legacy of the 1996 Telecom Act was massive consolidation across almost every sector.

Over ten years, the legislation was supposed to save consumers $550 billion, including $333 billion in lower long-distance rates, $32 billion in lower local phone rates, and $78 billion in lower cable bills. But most of those savings never materialized. Indeed, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who opposed the legislation, noted in 2003: “From January 1996 to the present, the consumer price index has risen 17.4 percent … Cable rates are up 47.2 percent. Local phone rates are up 23.2 percent.”

Advocates of deregulation also promised the Act would create 1.4 million jobs and increase the nation’s Gross Domestic Product by as much as $2 trillion. Both proved wrong. Consolidation meant the loss of at least 500,000 “redundant” jobs between 2001-2003 alone, and companies that became indebted in the frenzy of mergers and acquisitions ended up losing more than $2 trillion in the speculative frenzy, conflicts of interest, and police-free zone of the deregulated telecom marketplace.

The consolidation has also drastically reduced the number of independent voices speaking, writing, and broadcasting to the American people. Today, just a handful of corporations control most radio and TV stations, newspapers, cable systems, movie studios, and concert ticketing and facilities.

The law also stripped away oversight of the broadband industry which faces little competition and has no incentive to push for service-enhancing upgrades, costing America’s leadership in broadband and challenging the digital economy. What few controls the FCC still has are now in the crosshairs of large telecom companies like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon.

All are lobbying against institutionalized Net Neutrality, oppose community broadband competition, regulated minimum speed standards, and service oversight. AT&T and Verizon are lobbying to dismantle the rural telephone network in favor of their much more lucrative wireless networks.

Consumers Union predicted the outcome of the 1996 Telecom Act back in 2000, when it suggested a duopoly would eventually exist for most Americans, one dedicated primarily to telephone services (AT&T and Verizon Wireless’ mobile networks) and the other to video and broadband (cable). The publisher of Consumers Reports also accurately predicted neither the telephone or the cable company would compete head to head with other telephone or cable companies, and High Speed Internet would be largely controlled by cable networks using a closed, proprietary network not open to competitors.

Analysts suggest a 2015 Telecom Act would largely exist to further cement the status quo by prohibiting federal and state governments from regulating provider conduct and allowing the marketplace a free hand to determine minimum standards governing speeds, network performance, and pricing.

In fact, the most radical idea Thune has tentatively proposed for consideration in a revisit of the Act is his “Local Choice” concept to unbundle broadcast TV channels from all-encompassing cable television packages. His proposal would allow consumers to opt out of subscribing to one or more local broadcast television stations now bundled into cable television packages.

Marsha Blackburn Angry that FCC Chairman Wants to Run Tenn. Broadband… When AT&T Should

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) is angry that FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is sticking his nose into AT&T, Comcast, and Charter Communications’ private playground — the state of Tennessee.

In an editorial published by The Tennessean, Blackburn throws a fit that an “unelected” bureaucrat not only believes what’s best for her state, but is now openly talking about preempting state laws that ban public broadband networks:

Legislatures are the entities who should be making these decisions. Legislatures govern what municipalities can and cannot do. The principles of federalism and state delegation of power keep government’s power in check. When a state determines that municipalities should be limited in experimenting in the private broadband market, it’s usually because the state had a good reason — to help protect public investments in education and infrastructure or to protect taxpayers from having to bailout an unproven and unsustainable project.

Chairman Wheeler has repeatedly stated that he intends to preempt the states’ sovereign role when it comes to this issue. His statements assume that Washington knows best. However, Washington often forgets that the right answers don’t always come from the top down.

It’s unfortunate Rep. Blackburn’s convictions don’t extend to corporate money and influence in the public dialogue about broadband. The “good reason” states have limited public broadband come in the form of a check, either presented directly to politicians like Blackburn, who has received so many contributions from AT&T she could cross daily exercise off her “things to do” list just running to the bank, or through positive press from front groups, notably the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

According to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, three of Blackburn’s largest career donors are employees and PACs affiliated with AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. Blackburn has also taken $56,000 from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the lobby for the big telecoms.

Combined, those organizations donated more than $200,000 to Blackburn. In comparison, her largest single donor is a PAC associated with Memphis-based FedEx Corp., which donated $68,500.

Phillip "States' rights don't extend to local rights in Blackburn's ideological world" Dampier

Phillip “States’ rights don’t extend to local rights in Blackburn’s ideological world” Dampier

Blackburn’s commentary tests the patience of the reality-based community, particularly when she argues that keeping public broadband out protects investments in education. As her rural constituents already know, 21st century broadband is often unavailable in rural Tennessee, and that includes many schools. Stop the Cap! regularly receives letters from rural Americans who complain they have to drive their kids to a Wi-Fi enabled parking lot at a fast food restaurant, town library, or even hunt for an unintentionally open Wi-Fi connection in a private home, just to complete homework assignments that require a broadband connection.

Blackburn’s favorite telecommunication’s company — AT&T — has petitioned the state legislature to allow it to permanently disconnect DSL and landline service in rural areas of the state, forcing customers to a perilous wireless data experience that doesn’t work as well as AT&T promises. While Blackburn complains about the threat of municipal broadband, she says and does nothing about the very real possibility AT&T will be allowed to make things even worse for rural constituents in her own state.

Who does Blackburn believe will ride to the rescue of rural America? Certainly not AT&T, which doesn’t want the expense of maintaining wired broadband service in less profitable rural areas. Comcast won’t even run cable lines into small communities. In fact, evidence has shown for at least a century, whether it is electricity, telephone, or broadband service, when large corporate entities don’t see profits, they won’t provide the service and communities usually have to do the job themselves. But this time those communities are handcuffed in states that have enacted municipal broadband bans literally written by incumbent phone and cable companies and shepherded into the state legislature through front groups like ALEC.

Chairman Wheeler is in an excellent position to understand the big picture, far better than Blackburn’s limited knowledge largely absorbed from AT&T’s talking points. After all, Wheeler comes from the cable and wireless industry and knows very well how the game is played. Wheeler has never said that Washington knows best, but he has made it clear state and federal legislators who support anti-competitive measures like municipal broadband bans don’t have a monopoly on good ideas either — they just have monopolies.

That isn’t good enough for Congresswoman Blackburn, who sought to strip funding from the FCC to punish the agency for crossing AT&T, Comcast and other telecom companies:

Marsha is an avowed member of the AT&T Fan Club.

Marsha is an avowed member of the AT&T Fan Club.

In July, I passed an amendment in Congress that would prohibit taxpayer funds from being used by the FCC to pre-empt state municipal broadband laws. My amendment doesn’t prevent Chattanooga or any other city in Tennessee from being able to engage in municipal broadband. It just keeps those decisions at the state level. Tennessee’s state law that allowed Chattanooga and other cities to engage in municipal broadband will continue to exist without any interference from the FCC. Tennessee should be able to adjust its law as it sees fit, instead of Washington dictating to us.

Notice that Blackburn’s ideological fortitude has loopholes that protect a very important success story — EPB Fiber in Chattanooga, one of the first to offer gigabit broadband service. If municipal broadband is such a threat to common sense, why the free pass for EPB? In fact, it is networks like EPB that expose the nonsense on offer from Blackburn and her industry friends that claim public broadband networks are failures and money pits.

In fact, Blackburn’s idea of states’ rights never seems to extend to local communities across Tennessee that would have seen local ordinances gutted by Blackburn’s telecommunications policies and proposed bills. In 2005, Blackburn introduced the ironically named Video Choice Act of 2005 which, among other things:

  • Would have granted a nationwide video franchise system that would end all local oversight over rights-of-way for the benefit of incumbent telephone companies, but not for cable or other new competitors like Google Fiber;
  • Strips away all local oversight of cable and telephone company operations that allowed local jurisdictions to ensure providers follow local laws and rules;
  • Prohibited any mechanism on the local level to collect franchise payments;
  • Eliminated any rules forbidding “redlining” — when a provider only chooses select parts of a community to serve.

More recently, Blackburn has been on board favoring legislation restricting local communities from having a full say on the placement of cell towers. Current Tennessee law already imposes restrictions on local communities trying to refuse requests from AT&T, Verizon and others to place new cell towers wherever they like. She is also in favor of highest-bidder wins spectrum auctions that could allow AT&T and Verizon to use their enormous financial resources to snap up new spectrum and find ways to hoard it to keep it away from competitors.

Not everyone in Tennessee appreciated Blackburn’s remarks.

Nashville resident Paul Felton got equal time in the newspaper to refute Blackburn’s claims:

Rep. Marsha Blackburn is on her high horse (Tennessee Voices, Oct. 3) about the idea of the Federal Communications Commission opposing laws against municipal broadband networks, wrapping herself in the mantle of states’ rights. We know that behind all “states’ rights” indignation is “corporate rights” protection.

The last I heard, there was only one Internet, and anyone can log into Amazon or healthcare.gov just as easily from any state. Or any budget.

No, this is about the one Internet being controlled by one corporate giant (or two) in each area, who want to control price and broadband speed, and now want to link the two. They don’t want competition from any pesky municipal providers hellbent on providing the same speed for all users, at a lower price. Check the lobbying efforts against egalitarian ideas to find out which side of an issue Marsha Blackburn always comes down on.

But comments like these don’t deter Rep. Blackburn.

“Congress cannot sit idly by and let a federal agency trample on our states’ rights,” she wrote, but we believe she meant to say ‘AT&T’s rights.’

“Besides, the FCC should be tackling other priorities where political consensus exists, like deploying spectrum into the marketplace, making the Universal Service Fund more effective, protecting consumers, improving emergency communications and other important policies,” Blackburn wrote.

Remarkably, that priority list just so happens to mirror AT&T’s own legislative agenda. Perhaps that is just a coincidence.

Providers Are Still Confused About Why You Want Faster Broadband

The many stages of denial

The many stages of denial

It took Google Fiber to change the paradigm that you only need enough broadband speed to run the basics — anything extra is extravagant and unnecessary. At least that is the argument broadband providers continue to make when asked about speed upgrades.

“When Google announced it was offering a gigabit, everybody was (like), ‘Huh? What are you going do with that?'” said Heather Burnett Gold, president of the Fiber to the Home Council Americas.

Time Warner Cable and AT&T are in the process of finding out in both Kansas City and (soon) in Austin, Tex. But when you don’t have what the other guy is offering, providers predictably switch to the cheaper-than-upgrades-argument, ‘you don’t need it.’

Before Google Fiber began a serious advance into Time Warner Cable territories and the cable company’s top speed of 50/5Mbps became an embarrassing outlier, then chief financial officer Irene Esteves poo-poohed the notion that people need anything faster than what Time Warner was already delivering. Esteves told an investment-phobic crowd of Wall Street analysts at a Morgan Stanley Tech Conference everyone was happy with what they already had.

“We just don’t see the need of delivering that [gigabit speed] to consumers,” Esteves said back in 2013.

Comcast didn’t think much of speed upgrades either… until it did in its regulatory filings to acquire Time Warner Cable, where Comcast championed the fact it offers more speed upgrades than Time Warner Cable ever did. But who can forget Comcast repeatedly telling customers their speeds were fast enough, and with their then-ubiquitous 250GB usage cap, you couldn’t use faster speeds for that much anyway.

“For some, the discussion about the broadband Internet seems to begin and end on the issue of “gigabit” access,” David L. Cohen, Comcast’s executive vice president, wrote in an editorial in the summer of 2013. “The issue with such speed is really more about demand than supply. Our business customers can already order 10-gig connections. Most websites can’t deliver content as fast as current networks move, and most U.S. homes have routers that can’t support the speed already available to the home.”

(Today, Comcast touts it has new routers that will support the fastest speeds on offer from cable companies and promises Time Warner Cable customers long overdue speed upgrades.)

Other providers that cannot possibly compete with Google Fiber’s speed also like to change the subject.

The Wireless Cowboys blog, run by a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP), believes the real issue isn’t about speed at all.

“All of the discussions about ‘Gigabit Internet’ and coming up with uses for it focuses too much on the American obsession with ‘bigger, faster, moar!’ while obscuring what I feel are the more important issues of accessibility, affordability, choice of provider, freedom from data exploitation and dependency on the cloud,” wrote the editor.

Unfortunately for him, it isn’t the American obsession with ‘bigger, faster, moar’ that is the issue. It is just about everywhere else where nations are treating major broadband upgrades as a national priority, while we depend almost entirely on a barely competitive private sector to deliver upgrades most of them don’t believe we need in the first place.

Dan Tesch wrote in InformationWeek earlier this year he wants the United States to sit this one out.

“Even if Latvians enjoy faster connections than Texans (2.5 x faster), I’m really curious how broadband speeds of more than a few slowMbps for average households can have a material impact on the economy,” he writes. “A 6Mbps connection could easily support several home users simultaneously shopping on multiple e-commerce sites, downloading iTunes, streaming Spotify, and so on. Do Americans really need gigabit to the home?”

Back in the early 1990s, dial-up was plenty for the online applications of the day and faxing managed just fine at 9600bps over landlines, so why do we need more? Perhaps because dial-up is effectively dead to us and faxing has become quaint, like carrying cassettes in your car. Technology marches forward, and providers must follow (or preferably lead).

It is inevitable that faster broadband will drive development of new applications designed to take advantage of gigabit speeds as they become more common. That isn’t likely to happen for years in the United States and Canada, but those speeds are already becoming common in Europe and Asia. Where superfast broadband predominates, so shall high-tech app developers and other digital economy businesses. North America will be left behind until we finally catch up to Romania, Bulgaria, and South Korea.

The evidence is already there.

“I just returned from Stockholm where fiber connections are cheap and as available as running water,” said Susan Crawford, a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and author of “Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry & Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.” As a result, she said, developers there have “a digital sandbox to play in,” which means they are more likely to develop the next generation of software and hardware.

“Most people don’t really get it yet,” Synthia Payne, who moved from Denver to Kansas City, Kan., for a $70-a-month Google Fiber connection told the New York Times. She needed superfast broadband to develop an app called Cyberjammer that allows musicians around the world to jam online and in real-time. “People just haven’t conceived of what fiber will mean and how it will change the way we live and work.”

Brad Kalinoski and Tinatsu Wallace fled Time Warner Cable country in Los Angeles and moved to Wilson, N.C. They co-own Exodus FX, a company that provides special effects for commercials, television and feature films like “The Black Swan” and “Captain America.”

“We were doing so much business that we had to have increased bandwidth, so we started looking around and found Wilson,” said Kalinoski.

If they stayed in Hollywood, gigabit fiber broadband requires an extremely expensive commercial account with a substantial buildout/installation fee to reach the building and monthly charges starting at $1,500-3,000. Today, he pays Greenlight, Wilson’s publicly owned fiber to the building provider, $150 a month for gigabit access.

frustrationAny digital economy business dependent on fast Internet can see the economics, and often relocate.

“In New York, I pay four times as much as someone in Stockholm would pay for a connection that is 17 times as slow on the download and 167 times as slow on upload,” Crawford noted. “Most of us are paying enormous rents for second-class service.”

It’s the same in Seattle, where Eric Blank moved his 20-employee IT security firm from Seattle to Mount Vernon, Wash., which has its own fiber network. Blank could have kept paying CenturyLink or Comcast around $985 a month for vastly slower service or pay Mount Vernon for access to its public broadband service, which costs $250 a month. Blank told the New York Times he gets better service for his $250 in Mount Vernon than what he got at a higher price in Seattle.

Remarkably, for all the talk about why Americans don’t need faster Internet service, the moment a competitor starts selling it, the cheap talk turns into service upgrades (or at least press releases promising upgrades).

In Kansas City, speeds are rising not just because of Google Fiber. Akamai has found AT&T and Time Warner Cable are upgrading to deliver faster speeds as well.

We’re seeing faster speeds everywhere,” said David Belson, who authors the State of the Internet Report for Akamai. “Part of that is that the technology is improving to get better speeds out of existing networks, part of it is consumer demand, and part is the pressure that Google Fiber’s existence creates on everybody else.”

Today Time Warner Cable delivers 50Mbps for what it used to charge for 15Mbps service in Kansas City. AT&T has also boosted speeds of its U-verse service in many Kansas City neighborhoods, with promises to deliver gigabit speeds in Overland Park in the not-too-distant future.

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.

Syracuse Wants More Choices Than Comcast and Verizon: Considers Building Publicly-Owned FTTH Alternative

Downtown Syracuse (Image: Post-Standard)

Downtown Syracuse (Image: Post-Standard)

The city of Syracuse is facing an unpleasant broadband reality: the current cable company is about to be bought out by Comcast (which has usage caps in store for broadband customers) and the phone company has thrown in the towel on further expanding FiOS — fiber to the home broadband.

Mayor Stephanie Miner isn’t willing to let the city get trapped by a lack of broadband options from Comcast and Verizon, so she’s developing a plan to build a publicly owned alternative.

“I’m putting together a plan that we can do it ourselves, as a community,” Miner told the Post-Standard

If approved, Syracuse would join Chattanooga, Lafayette, La.,  Wilson and Salisbury, N.C., and several other cities providing local citizens with broadband speeds up to 1,000/1,000Mbps.

“Would we have to do that in phases? What would that look like? How would we pay for it? What would the model be? Those are all things that we are currently looking at, ” Miner noted.

Many of those questions have already been worked out by the best clearinghouse Stop the Cap! knows for excellent community broadband project development: the team at the Institute for Local Self Reliance.

The Community Broadband Networks Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, works with communities across the United States to create the policies needed to make sure telecommunications networks serve the community rather than a community serving the network. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a non-profit organization that started in Washington D.C. in 1974.

ILSR’s Mission:

The Institute’s mission is to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. To this end, ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to design systems, policies and enterprises that meet local or regional needs; to maximize human, material, natural and financial resources; and to ensure that the benefits of these systems and resources accrue to all local citizens.

No community should attempt to build a community broadband network without first consulting with ILSR. They are particularly effective at helping combat the misinformation campaigns that often arise when an incumbent duopoly discovers they are about to get serious competition for the first time.

If your community wants something better than the local cable and phone company, have your local official(s) E-mail or call Christopher Mitchell at ILSR: 612-276-3456 x209

With entrenched providers unwilling to meet the needs of communities for affordable fast Internet, more American communities are providing the service themselves, much as they take care of local roads, bridges, and other public infrastructure. Comcast’s toll information superhighway may work wonders for shareholders, but it leaves most customers cold. Syracuse, like most upstate New York cities, has also watched Verizon flee from investments in FiOS expansion beyond a handful of wealthy suburbs. Verizon has diverted much of its investment away from wired networks in favor of wireless, a much more profitable business.

Stop the Cap!’s Letter to N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast/TWC Merger Deal

psctest

August 6, 2014

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

The country is watching New York to learn if our state regulators believe a merger between two unpopular cable operators is in the best interest of New York residents.

For the first time in a long time, the Public Service Commission has been empowered to provide much needed oversight over two companies that have enjoyed both deregulation and a near-monopoly across the region, particularly for High Speed Internet service at speeds above 10Mbps.

New Yorkers, like the rest of the country, consistently rank both Comcast and Time Warner Cable as some of the worst companies around.[1] The PSC has the power to facilitate franchise transfers that would effectively combine the two into one giant monolithic cable company dominating the northeastern U.S., or it can reject the proposed assignment of franchises to Comcast, letting both companies know “in the public interest” means something in New York State.

Section 222 of the New York Public Service law[2] provides the PSC with the authority to reject the application for a transfer of a franchise, any transfer of control of a franchise or certificate of confirmation, or of facilities constituting a significant part of any cable television system unless, and I paraphrase, the transfer is in the public interest.

The Commission is on record partly articulating its standard for determining the public interest. In 2013, the Commission stated several principles it considered in the matter of the acquisition of Central Hudson Gas and Electric by Fortis, Inc., to determine if the transaction would provide customers positive net benefits.[3] The Petitioners in that case were held to a standard requiring them to demonstrate the expected intrinsic benefits of the transaction exceeded its detriments and risks.

However, there are considerable differences between energy utilities and the largely deregulated marketplace for multichannel video distributors and broadband providers. While legacy telephone regulations still provide for significant oversight of this vital service, cable operators have won the right to set their own rates, service policies, and broad service areas.

Although many of us believe broadband has become an essential utility service, federal regulators do not, especially after telephone and cable companies have successfully lobbied on the federal level to weaken or eliminate regulation and oversight of television and broadband service with arguments they do business in a fiercely competitive marketplace.[4]

Regulators cannot compel cable operators to provide service in communities where they have chosen not to seek a franchise agreement, and broadband expansion programs in rural, unserved areas have largely only been successful when communities elect to construct their own broadband networks or federal funds (tax dollars and subsidies funded by ratepayers) defray the expense of last-mile networks.  While it is enticing to seek a voluntary agreement from the applicant to expand its rural service area, the public interest benefit to the relatively small number of New Yorkers getting broadband for the first time must be weighed against the interests of millions of existing subscribers in New York who are likely to see further rate increases, usage-limited broadband service, and worse service from Comcast.

New Yorkers will remain captive in most areas to choosing between one telephone and one cable company for packages of phone, television, and Internet access.[5] Promises of competition have never materialized for vast numbers of state residents, particularly those upstate who have been left behind after Verizon ceased its FiOS fiber to the home expansion project.

Unless Comcast was compelled to wire the entire state, any proposal seeking a voluntary agreement to expand Comcast’s service area in New York is likely to be insufficient to solve the pervasive problem of rural broadband availability. It would also saddle millions of New Yorkers with a company unwelcomed by consumers, with no alternative choice.

As you will see in our filing, Comcast has often promised improvements it planned to offer anyway, but held back to offer as a “concession” to regulators.

The result of past deals is one monopolistic cable operator is replaced by another, and as the American Consumer Satisfaction Index reported, bigger is not better for consumers.[6]

The nation’s two largest cable operators, Comcast and Time Warner Cable, now seek further “value creation” for their already very profitable businesses by merging.[7]

News reports indicate further consolidation is likely in the telecommunications marketplace, largely in response to this merger proposal. Soon after Comcast made its announcement, AT&T announced its desire to acquire DirecTV,[8] and Charter Communications’ efforts to bolster its size are likely to be realized acquiring Time Warner Cable customers cast off as part of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable transaction.[9]

How does this benefit New Yorkers? In our attached statement, we go far beyond the testimony offered by Comcast’s representative at the public information meeting we attended in Buffalo. It is vital for any merger review to include a careful analysis of exactly what Comcast is proposing to offer New York. But it is even more important to consider the costs of these improvements. As you will see, many of the promised upgrades come at a steep price – set top box platforms that require a $99 installation fee, the prospect faster broadband speeds will be tempered by broadband usage limits and usage penalties largely unfamiliar to New Yorkers, and other technology upgrades that are accompanied by subscriber inconvenience and added costs.

Comcast’s promised commitments for customers must also be carefully weighed against what it promised shareholders. While Comcast claims it will spend millions to upgrade acquired Time Warner Cable systems (many already being upgraded by Time Warner Cable itself), the merger announcement includes unprecedented bonus and golden parachute packages for the outgoing executives at Time Warner Cable, including a $78 million bonus for Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus, announced less than 60 days after taking the helm.[10] Comcast’s biggest investment of all will be on behalf of its shareholders, who will benefit from an estimated $17 billion share repurchase plan.[11]

The PSC should be aware that previous efforts to mitigate the bad behavior of cable companies have nearly always failed to protect consumers.

Professor John E. Kwoka, Jr., in his study, “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and Merger Outcomes,[12]” found past attempts at behavioral remedies spectacularly failed to protect against rapacious rate increases after  mergers are approved.[13]

In short, it is our contention that this merger proposal offers few, if any benefits to New York residents and is not in the public interest even if modestly modified by regulators.

The implications of this transaction are enormous and will directly impact the lives of most New Yorkers, particularly for broadband, now deemed by the industry (and consumers) its most important product.[14]

We have attached a more detailed analysis of our objections to this proposal and we urge the New York Public Service Commission to recognize this transaction does not come close to meeting the public interest test and must therefore be rejected.

 

Yours very truly,

 

Phillip M. Dampier

[1]http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/05/comcast-time-warner-cable-still-have-the-angriest-customers-survey-finds/
[2]http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/PBS/11/222
[3]http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={A55ECCE9-C3B2-4076-A934-4F65AA7E79D1}
[4]http://www.mi-natoa.org/pdfs/The_Ten_Disappointments_of_Cable.pdf
[5]http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/we-need-real-competition-not-a-cable-internet-monopoly
[6]http://www.theacsi.org/component/content/article/30-commentary-category/179-acsi-quarterly-commentaries-q1-2008
[7]http://corporate.comcast.com/images/Transaction-Fact-Sheet-2-13-14.pdf
[8]http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/business/2014/05/13/att-directv-deal-analysis/9044491/
[9]http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/04/28/us-charter-communi-comcast-idUSBREA3R0N620140428
[10]http://money.cnn.com/2014/03/21/news/companies/time-warner-cable-golden-parachute/
[11]http://www.cleveland.com/business/index.ssf/2014/02/comcast_agrees_to_purchase_of.html
[12]John E. Kwoka, Jr., “Does Merger Control Work? A Retrospective on U.S. Enforcement Actions and
Merger Outcomes,” 78 Antitrust L.J 619 (2013)
[13]7 John E. Kwoka, Jr. and Diana L. Moss, “Behavioral Merger Remedies: Evaluation and Implications for
Antitrust Enforcement,” at 22, available at
http://antitrustinstitute.org/sites/default/files/AAI_wp_behavioral%20remedies_final.pdf
[14]http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303657404576359671078105148

More Proof of Comcast’s Monopoly Tendencies: Spending Big to Kill Community Broadband Competition

When the community of Batavia, Ill., a distant suburb of Chicago, decided they wanted something better than the poor broadband offered by Comcast and what is today AT&T, it decided to hold a public referendum on whether the town should construct and run its own fiber to the home network for the benefit of area residents and businesses. A local community group, Fiber for Our Future, put up $4,325 to promote the initiative back in 2004, if only because the town obviously couldn’t spend tax dollars to advertise or promote the idea itself.

Within weeks of the announced proposal, both Comcast and SBC Communications (which later acquired AT&T) launched an all-out war on the idea of fiber to the home service, mass mailing flyers attacking the proposal to area residents and paying for push polling operations that asked area residents questions like, “should tax money be allowed to provide pornographic movies for residents?” The predictable opposition measured in response to questions like that later appeared in mysterious opinion pieces published in area newspapers submitted by the incumbent companies and their allies.

no comm broadband

Comcast spent $89,740 trying to defeat the measure in a community of just 26,000 people. SBC spent $192,324 — almost $3.50 per resident by Comcast and just shy of $7.50 per resident by SBC. Much the same happened in the neighboring communities of St. Charles and Geneva. 

According to Motherboard, the scare tactics worked, cutting support for the fiber network from over 72 percent to its eventual defeat in two separate referendums, leaving most of Batavia with 3Mbps DSL from SBC or an average of 6Mbps from Comcast.

Much of the blizzard of mailers and brochures Comcast and SBC mailed out were part of a coordinated disinformation campaign. Both companies also knew their claims would go largely unchallenged because Fiber for Our Future and other fiber proponents lacked the funding to respond with fact check pieces of their own mailed to residents to expose the distortions.

When it was all over, it was back to business as usual with Comcast and SBC. The latter defended its reputation after complaints soared about its inadequate broadband speeds.

Kirk Brannock, then midwest networking president for SBC, told city council members in the area that “fiber is an unproven technology.”

“What are you going to do with 20Mbps? It’s like having an Indy race car and you don’t have the racetrack to drive it on. We are going to be offering 3Mbps. Most users won’t use that,” he said.

risky

“All the subscribers got these extraordinary fliers. Ghosts, goblins, witches. I mean, this is about a broadband utility. Very scary stuff. This is real. This is comical, but this is very real,” Catharine Rice of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice said of the fliers at an event discussing municipal fiber earlier this year. “They have this amazing picture, and then they lie about what happened. They’re piling in facts that aren’t true.”

In communities that won approval for construction of publicly-owned fiber networks, the battle wasn’t over. Tennessee’s large state cable lobbying group unsuccessfully sued EPB to keep it out of the fiber business. In North Carolina, Time Warner Cable effectively wrote legislation introduced and passed by the Republican-dominated General Assembly that forbade community broadband expansion and made constructing new networks nearly impossible. In Ohio, another cable industry-sponsored piece of legislation destroyed the business plan of Lebanon’s fiber network, forcing the community to eventually sell the network at a loss to Cincinnati Bell.

The larger Comcast grows, the more financial resources it can bring to bare against any would-be competitors. Even in 2004, the company was large enough to force would-be community competitors to steer clear and stay out of its territory.

women

 

New York City Comptroller Unimpressed With Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

one mbps

“Hey look, is that the Verizon FiOS truck?”

New York City comptroller Scott Stringer is lukewarm at best about the idea of Comcast taking over for Time Warner Cable. In a letter to the New York Public Service Commission released today, Stringer says the deal needs major changes before it comes close to serving the public interest.

“As New York City residents know all too well, our city is stuck in an Internet stone age, at least when compared to other municipalities across the country and around the world,” Stringer wrote. “According to a study by the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, New Yorkers not only endure slower Internet service than similar cities in other parts of the world, but they also pay higher prices for that substandard service. Tokyo residents enjoy speeds that are eight times faster than New York City’s, for a lower price. And Hong Kong residents enjoy speeds that are 20 times faster, for the equivalent price.”

Stringer should visit upstate New York some time. While the Big Apple is moving to a Verizon FiOS and Time Warner Cable Maxx or Cablevision/Optimum future, upstate New York is, in comparison, Raquel Welch-prehistoric, especially if your only choice is Verizon “No, We Won’t Expand DSL to Your House,” or Frontier “3.1Mbps is Plenty” Communications. If New York City’s speeds are slow, upstate New York speeds are glacial.

“The latest data from the FCC shows that, as of June 30, 2013, over 40 percent of connections in New York State are below 3Mbps,” Springer added.

Come for the Finger Lakes, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Should the merger be approved, Comcast would be obligated to comply with the existing franchise agreement between Time Warner Cable and the City of New York. However, in order for the proposed merger to truly be in the public interest, Comcast must have a more detailed plan to address these ongoing challenges and to further close the digital divide that leaves so many low-income New Yorkers cut off from the information superhighway. To date, Comcast’s efforts to close the digital divide have focused on its “Internet Essentials” program, which was launched in 2012.iii The program offers a 5 megabit/second connection for $9.95/month (plus tax) to families matching all of the following criteria:

• Located within an area where Comcast offers Internet service
• Have at least one child eligible to participate in the National School Lunch Program
• Have not subscribed to Comcast Internet service within the last 90 days
• Does not have an overdue Comcast bill or unreturned equipment

While the aim of the program is laudatory, its slow speed, limited eligibility, and inadequate outreach have kept high-quality connectivity beyond the reach of millions of low-income Americans. Not only are the eligibility rules for Internet Essentials far too narrow, but the company has done a poor job of signing up those who do meet the criteria. In fact, only 300,000 (12 percent) of eligible households nationwide have actually signed up since the program was launched in 2011.

It is critical that the PSC not only press Comcast to significantly expand the reach of Internet Essentials, but also that it engage in appropriate oversight to ensure that the company is meeting its commitments to low-income residents of the Empire State.

Phillip "Comcast isn't the answer to the problem, it's the problem itself" Dampier

Phillip “Comcast isn’t the answer, it’s the problem” Dampier

In fact, the best way New York can protect its low-income residents is to keep Comcast out of the state. Time Warner Cable offers everyday $14.99 Internet access to anyone who wants it as long as they want it. No complicated pre-qualification conditions, annoying forms, or gotcha terms and conditions.

When a representative from the PSC asked a Comcast representative if the company would keep Time Warner’s discount Internet offer, a non-answer answer was the response. That usually means the answer is no.

“We have seen how telecommunications companies will promise to expand access as a condition of a merger, only to shirk their commitments once the merger has been approved,” Springer complained. “For instance, as part of its 2006 purchase of BellSouth, AT&T told Congress that it would work to provide customers ‘greater access and more choices for broadband, no matter where they live or work.’ However, later reports found that the FCC relied on the companies themselves to report their own merger compliance and did not conduct independent audits to verify their claims.”

Big Telecom promises are like getting commitments from a cheating spouse. Never trust… do verify or throw them out. Comcast still has not met all the conditions it promised to meet after its recent merger with NBCUniversal, according to Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Stringer also blasted Comcast for its Net Neutrality roughhousing:

While the FCC has not declared internet providers to be “common carriers”, state law has effectively done so within the Empire State. Under 16 NYCRR Part 605, a common carrier is defined as “a corporation that holds itself out to provide service to the public for hire to provide conduit services including voice, data, or video by electrical, electronic, electromagnetic or photonic means.”

Importantly, the law requires these carriers to “provide publicly offered conduit services on demand to any similarly situated user on substantially similar terms, subject to the availability of facilities and capacity.”

In recent months, Comcast has shown that it is willing to sacrifice net neutrality in order to squeeze additional payment out of content providers, such as Netflix. As shown in the chart below, Netflix download speeds on the Comcast network deteriorated rapidly prior to an agreement whereby Netflix now pays Comcast for preferential access.

speed changes

concast careConsumers have a legitimate fear that if access to fiber-optic networks is eventually for sale to the highest bidder, then not only will it stifle the entrepreneurial energy unleashed by the democratizing forces of the Internet, but will also potentially lead to higher prices for consumers in accessing content. Under that scenario, consumers are hit twice—first by paying for Internet access to their home and second by paying for certain content providers’ preferred access.

Internet neutrality has been a core principle of the web since its founding and the PSC must examine whether Comcast’s recent deal with Netflix is a sign that the company is eroding this principle in a manner that conflicts with the public interest.

Stringer may not realize Comcast also has an end run around Net Neutrality in the form of usage caps that will deter customers from accessing competitors’ content if it could put them over their monthly usage allowance and subject to penalty rates. Comcast could voluntarily agree to Net Neutrality and still win by slapping usage limits on all of their broadband customers. Either causes great harm for competitors like Netflix.

“I urge the Commission to hold Comcast to that burden and to ensure that the merger is in the best interest of the approximately 2.6 million Time Warner Cable subscribers in New York State and many more for whom quality, affordable Internet access remains unavailable,” Stringer writes. “And I urge Comcast to view this as an opportunity to do the right thing by introducing itself to the New York market as a company that values equitable access and understands that its product—the fourth utility of the modern age—must be available to all New Yorkers.”

If Comcast’s existing enormous customer base has already voted them the Worst Company in America, it is unlikely Comcast will turn on a dime for the benefit of New York.

The best way to ensure quality, affordable Internet access in New York is to keep Comcast out of New York.

No cable company has ever resolved the rural broadband problem. Their for-profit business model depends on a Return on Investment formula that prohibits expanding service into unprofitable service areas.

These rural service problems remain pervasive in Comcast areas as well, and always have since the company took over for AT&T Cable in the early 2000s. Little has changed over the last dozen years and little will change in the next dozen if we depend entirely on companies like Comcast to handle the rural broadband problem.

A more thoughtful solution is encouraging the development of community co-ops and similar broadband enterprises that need not answer to shareholders and strict ROI formulas.

In the meantime, for the good of all New York, let’s keep Comcast south (and north) of the border, thank you very much.

 

Free Speed Upgrades, 3000th Customer for North Carolina’s Community-Owned Fibrant

fibrant speedSalisbury’s community-owned fiber network has tripled its subscriber base in three years, signing up its 3,000th customer in the community of 33,000 and is already turning a profit.

Fibrant, despite facing intense opposition from corporate-backed, conservative special interest groups with financial ties to its competitors and a state law passed at the behest of Time Warner Cable that limits its future growth opportunities, has proven very successful delivering improved Internet access to a community that received the back of Time Warner’s hand when it requested service upgrades.

Salisbury invested $33 million to install more than 250 miles of fiber in and around the community and began hooking up customers to its all-fiber network in late 2010. By the following summer, 1,200 customers signed up. Today, Fibrant serves more than 3,000 homes in the community.

WCNC-TV in Charlotte reports Fibrant is likely to break even this year after losing $4.1 million the year before — a loss Fibrant attributes to normal start-up costs faced by almost every new business.

Dale Gibson has been thrilled to be a Fibrant customer since the beginning and is even happier now that Fibrant offers gigabit speeds.

“Generally, when an Internet service provider gives a speed, it represents bandwidth, or a theoretical ‘best effort’ speed, not the ‘throughput,’ or actual speed,” Gibson told the Salisbury Post. “My speed tests are consistently above 900Mbps.”

In 2013, Fibrant raised the speed of its entry-level broadband package to 20/20Mbps for no extra charge. In the coming week, Fibrant’s basic broadband customers will be getting another free upgrade to 50/50Mbps.

Customers who want even faster speeds are also getting them for no extra charge:

  • 30/30Mbps customers will see their speed raised to 75/75Mbps;
  • 50/50Mbps customers get a free speed increase to 100/100Mbps;
  • 100/100Mbps customers get the best upgrade of all: 1,000/1,000Mbps service at no extra cost.

Fibrant’s competitions cannot come close. AT&T U-verse still tops out at around 24Mbps in this part of North Carolina and caps its customers to 250GB of usage a month. Time Warner Cable’s best speed remains 50/5Mbps at a price higher than what Fibrant charges for 100/100Mbps.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee, but mostly AT&T and Comcast)

Fibrant has also improved its video packages, with new features like a whole house DVR, more channels, and more HD. Customers who don’t want networks shoveled at them can buy a basic cable TV package from Fibrant for $37 a month. Those who want more can upgrade to several different packages offering a maximum of over 450 TV channels and 50 music channels.

Customers in nearby communities who want the kind of competition Fibrant delivers will have to wait a long time to get it. Time Warner Cable, with the support of the Republican state legislature, successfully introduced and eventually passed the cable company-drafted measure to essentially ban community broadband in the state. FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler promised to consider eliminating these state corporate protectionism laws, provoking a hostile response in the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee Republican with heavy backing from telecommunications giants AT&T and Comcast, introduced a measure for the benefit of large phone and cable companies that would override any effort by the FCC to increase competition by eliminating anti-competitive restrictions on public broadband.

“Blackburn’s positions line up very well with the cable and telephone companies that give a lot of money to her campaigns,” said Christopher Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “In this case, Blackburn is doing what it takes to benefit the cable and telephone companies rather than the United States, which needs more choices, faster speeds, and lower prices. The argument that Blackburn puts forth [for passage of her measure] is not coherent. It’s just politics.”

Republicans in the House responded anyway, passing her measure 223-200. Just two Democrats voted in favor. The bill is not expected to pass the Senate and would almost certainly face a presidential veto.

New York Democrat Jose Serrano relished the ideological irony of House Republicans forced to twist their positions to accommodate AT&T.

“Whatever happened to localism or local control?,” asked Serrano. “This amendment means the federal government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. Any such amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leaders to determine if their broadband needs are being met.”

As community-owned providers in North Carolina found out, Big Telecom money often speaks louder than ideological consistency.

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  • fjfdybvfgj: The Data Usage represented is usually the norm for most people by themselves. In a family of 5 and our usage is usually around 6TBs normally and is ~9...
  • Bryan: Awesome article Just got 12MB and U-200 with HD included free for $93 a month. Also made them throw in movie channels for a month free....
  • Mike: The U.S. government has been hijacked by murderous psychopaths. They seek global domination and, using the power of the U.S. military and intelligen...
  • Glen: They are insane - you can buy a Tivo Roamio pro 6 tuner and just get a cable card and sdv box and get 6 shows at once and 1tb of space as well as str...

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