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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.”

FCC Plans to Unveil New Rules to Regulate Broadband Service as a Public Utility; Net Neutrality Included

Phillip Dampier February 3, 2015 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

netneutralityIn a major victory for consumers and public interest groups, the Federal Communications Commission this week will unveil fundamental changes in the oversight of high-speed Internet service, regulating it in the public interest as a public utility.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler plans to include robust Net Neutrality protection in the proposal, insisting the agency has a right to oversee providers’ traffic management practices when they impact customers.

Central to the proposal is redefining broadband away from the current, barely regulated “information service” category that has allowed telecom companies to successfully challenge the FCC in court on almost every attempt to oversee broadband Internet service. Wheeler’s plan is expected to reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service,” which will subject providers to more regulator scrutiny.

The FCC is expected to specifically prohibit providers from blocking, slowing down, or speeding up individual websites in return for financial compensation. The ban on “Internet fast lanes” and “toll booths” will protect Internet startups that would otherwise face an immediate disadvantage from well-heeled competitors that can afford to pay for enhanced access to customers.

But despite claims from Net Neutrality opponents, Wheeler is not expected to impose a one-size-fits-all regulatory regime over broadband. Instead, he prefers to reserve regulatory powers to police individual disputes such as those between Netflix, Comcast, Verizon and other providers which caused traffic slowdowns for consumers in 2014 until paid peering agreements were finalized, compensating ISPs for handling Netflix streaming video content.

Providers fear that reclassifying broadband under Title II rules could subject them to future oversight of practices like usage-based billing, usage caps, speed throttling, broadband pricing and availability. But the Obama Administration is on record opposing price regulation of broadband, and few expect the FCC will adopt a micromanagement approach to broadband oversight.

Wheeler’s proposal is likely to win a majority vote from the three Democratic commissioners. Opposition is a virtual certainty from the Republican minority.

The telecom industry promises whatever rules are adopted will face an immediate challenge in court.

House and Senate Hold Hearings on GOP Fake Net Neutrality Alternative Supported by Telecom Lobby

Phillip Dampier January 21, 2015 Astroturf, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 3 Comments
Thune

Thune

The House and Senate today held back-to-back hearings on the issue of adopting a Republican alternative to the president’s idea of Net Neutrality.

After the president directly addressed his support of strong Net Neutrality protections, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler indicated he intended to act on the issue next month. Now many Republican legislators have changed their original view that Net Neutrality was “a solution in search of a problem” into a high priority agenda item demanding immediate attention, hoping to cut off Wheeler’s regulatory solution with new legislation.

That came in the form of a proposed new bill to define the principles of Net Neutrality from Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

“By turning the FCC away from a heavy-handed and messy approach to regulating the Internet, this draft protects both consumers who rely on Internet services and innovators who create jobs,” Thune wrote in a statement.

Both hearings were stacked against reclassification of broadband under Title II to assure strong Net Neutrality principles, including three witnesses formerly with the FCC that have moved into industry advocacy jobs.

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

Former FCC chairman Michael Powell is today America’s top cable lobbyist. Meredith Baker quickly left the FCC in 2011 after voting in favor of the Comcast-NBC merger deal, taking a lucrative position at Comcast before moving on to become the country’s top wireless industry lobbyist. Robert McDowell left the FCC in 2013 to take a job at the same law firm hired by Comcast to successfully challenge the FCC’s authority to fine the cable company over its past speed throttling practices. Today, McDowell’s employer also represents the interests of AT&T and Verizon.

Other witnesses testifying included Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee from the Multicultural, Media, Telecom & Internet Council, which claims to be a civil rights organization but in fact receives the bulk of its funding from corporate interests, including large telecom companies. It often advocates for the corporate agendas of its sponsors, including opposition to Title II reclassification and past support for the failed AT&T-T Mobile merger deal.

Tom Simmons, senior vice president of public policy for small cable operator Midcontinent Communications also appeared, opposing strong Net Neutrality policies. Simmons said that once the company explained Title II reclassification and how it would increase customers’ cable bills, support for Net Neutrality diminished.

Just two witnesses testified on behalf of consumer interests. Gene Kimmelman, president of Public Knowledge strongly advocated for Title II reclassification of broadband and Paul Misener, vice president of Global Public Policy for Amazon.com strongly opposed Internet fast lanes and other traffic manipulation practices.

The New York Times today reported that the Republicans may have an increasingly uphill fight with some of their own traditional supporters to push through legislation Internet activists claim is riddled with company-friendly loopholes.

“The libertarian conservative base is pretty astute at recognizing crony capitalism and understand how campaign finance and corporate influence affects policy,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a Net Neutrality advocacy group. “And this is a pretty transparent moment for all that.”

Revolving Door: When Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell Speaks, It’s Verizon and AT&T Talking

Phillip Dampier January 20, 2015 Consumer News, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments
D.C.'s perpetually revolving door keeps on spinning.

D.C.’s perpetually revolving door keeps on spinning.

A former Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission is calling on the federal agency to stop consideration of strong Net Neutrality rules and defer to a Republican drafted bill that would dramatically weaken Open Internet protections.

Robert McDowell said the FCC should defer to Congress and avoid adopting a “Depression era law designed to regulate phone monopolies” as the foundation for Net Neutrality enforcement.

“While Republicans and Democrats try to work out a deal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should hit the pause button on next month’s vote and let the elected representatives of the American people try to find common ground,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed Monday. “At the end of this constitutional process, all sides may be able to claim victory. It’s time to consider a different path — one that leads through Congress — to end the Net Neutrality fiasco. Although the legislative process can be perilous, Congress can provide all sides with a way out.”

McDowell’s comments fall tightly in line with the fierce lobbying campaign against Net Neutrality being run by companies like Comcast and AT&T.

That may not be surprising considering McDowell’s trip through the notorious “D.C. Revolving Door,” where ex-government employees go to work on behalf of the industries they formerly regulated.

McDowell

McDowell

After retiring from the FCC, McDowell landed a position with the law firm Wiley Rein LLP, a corporate favorite for litigation against government oversight and regulatory public policies. It was Wiley Rein LLP that represented Comcast in 2010, successfully arguing the FCC had no right to oversee Comcast’s Internet service under the Section 706 “information service” framework still at issue today.

The D.C. Circuit unanimously ruled, “the Commission failed to tie its assertion of ancillary authority over Comcast’s Internet service to any ‘statutorily mandated responsibility,'” a long-winded way to say that the FCC’s reliance on its limited authority to oversee broadband as an “information service” in reality gave the FCC almost no right of oversight at all.

Ironically, that case is what prompted Internet activists to demand the FCC reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications service” under Title II to give the FCC the authority it needs to oversee broadband providers, exactly what McDowell does not want.

The ruling (emphasis ours):

Turning to ancillary authority, the Court rejected each of the statutory provisions on which the Commission relied.  Relying on a number of Supreme Court precedents, the Court held that “policy statements alone cannot provide the basis for the Commission’s exercise of ancillary authority,” id. at 22, and thus rejected the Commission’s reliance on Section 230(b) and Section 1 of the Communications Act and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  The Court explained that allowing congressional policy to create “statutorily mandated responsibilities” sufficient to support the exercise of ancillary authority “would virtually free the Commission from its congressional tether.” Id. at 23.  The Court then rejected the remaining statutory provisions that “at least arguably delegate regulatory authority to the Commission,” id. at 16, on a variety of substantive and procedural grounds, including waiver.

Few media sources have bothered to disclose that McDowell’s new employer counts among its current clients two of the biggest Net Neutrality foes in the industry: AT&T and Verizon.

Channeling Pinnochio, NCTA Cable Lobby Launches “The Infinite Internet” (They Want to Usage Cap)

pinnocThe National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), the nation’s largest cable lobbying group, has outdone itself with a brand new fact-challenged video truth-seekers will quickly discover is little more than industry propaganda.

“For nearly 20 years, cable has been building Internet networks that are empowering everyone from innovators and entrepreneurs to kids in the garage,” says the NCTA in its introduction of its new video “The Infinite Internet.” “The Internet propels business, education, entertainment – whatever we want. It’s a platform of possibilities and the fast growing technology in history. Cable is proud of the part we’ve played in advancing America’s future and we’ll continue to make it faster and more accessible.”

Except many NCTA member companies want to introduce usage caps and consumption billing that limit those possibilities on an already absurdly profitable service. The same broadband duopoly of cable and phone companies also holds America’s broadband rankings back, and has demonstrated its real priority is to charge more money for less service.

We’ve reviewed the video and found credibility problems with almost every claim:

Claim: “America’s ISPs have invested trillions of dollars and laid 400,000 miles of fiber optics.”

Our finding: FIB Even industry mouthpieces like the Progressive Policy Institute and NCTA members themselves have a problem with “trillions.” The chief executives of AT&T, Bright House Networks, Cablevision, CenturyLink, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Suddenlink, Time Warner Cable, 15 other companies, and industry groups such as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association itself, the Telecommunications Industry Association, and the CTIA Wireless Association claimed in the spring of 2014 that the entire telecommunications industry (not cable alone) spent a combined $1.2 trillion on communications infrastructure. A considerable percentage of that investment was to build out cellular networks, first for mobile phone calls and only later for wireless data. The cable industry spent far less than $1 trillion on its own infrastructure and at the time of its most rapid growth, it was intended primarily to deliver cable television, not broadband.

Stop the Cap! also found the NCTA cheating in its claims of increasing investment in broadband. The trade group was citing cumulative spending, not actual year-to-year spending. A careful review shows broadband investments are generally flat or in decline and are nowhere near comparable to the investments the industry made in the late 1990s.

Although it may be true the cable industry has deployed 400,000 miles of fiber optics, the overwhelming majority of cable customers cannot directly access any of it. Virtually all the cable industry’s fiber is deployed between the company’s headquarters and individual communities where it is connected to the same coaxial cable platform that has been around since the 1960s. Most of the rest is laid for commercial purposes, notably providing backhaul connectivity for cell towers. Time Warner Cable alone deployed fiber to its 10,000th cell tower back in 2013. It’s a lucrative business, earning that cable company more than $61 million a quarter.

BroadbandNow found no cable company appearing on the list of top fiber broadband providers. In fact, as of 2012 only 23% of Americans have access to fiber broadband ranking the United States 14th among western countries in fiber optic penetration according to the OECD.

Claim: “High speed connections reach nearly every home with blazing fast speeds that power our lives.”

Our finding: HIGHLY MISLEADING The NCTA fails to define its terms here. What exactly constitutes a “high-speed connection.” The FCC currently defines broadband as providing speeds of 4Mbps or better. Is that “blazing fast?” The FCC is currently considering redefining broadband to mean speeds of at least 25Mbps, well below many cable company entry-level broadband tiers. The NCTA also likes to claim that 99% of households have access to high-speed Internet, but they include wireless technology at any speed in those figures. If you can get one bar from AT&T’s 3G wireless Internet network, you’ve got high-speed broadband in their eyes.

In fact, when it comes to stingy coverage areas, cable is notoriously not available outside of the biggest cities and suburbs, as the government’s own National Broadband Map depicts:

Map showing cable companies offering at least DOCSIS 3.0 cable broadband service.

Map showing cable companies offering at least DOCSIS 3.0 cable broadband service.

Claim: “ISP’s want access for everyone.”

Our finding: TRUE, WITH MISSING FINE PRINT What company would not want to offer its products and services to everyone. The real question is whether they plan on doing that or simply wishing they had. The cable industry has no intention of implementing sweeping changes to the Return On Investment (ROI) formula that determines whether your home gets access to cable or not. Some companies like Time Warner Cable and Frontier Communications are expanding their cable and DSL networks, but only when the government steps in with broadband deployment grant funding.

Assuming service is available, the next hurdle is cost. BBC News reported in 2013 home broadband in the U.S. costs far more than elsewhere. At high speeds, it costs nearly three times as much as in the UK and France, and more than five times as much as in South Korea. Today it costs even more when you count the growing number of providers charging modem rental fees as high as $10 a month and often cap usage or force customers into usage-based billing schemes.

Claim: “With over 300,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots, the Internet of Things is emerging.”

Cox Cable sells their customers on accessing over 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, with a prominent asterisk.

Cox Cable sells their customers on accessing over 300,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, with a prominent asterisk. Access is only available for free if you are a current cable broadband customer.

Our finding: MISLEADING The NCTA is referring to collaboration between Bright House Networks, Cox Communications, Optimum, Time Warner Cable and XFINITY that allow each other’s high-speed Internet customers to use to each company’s Wi-Fi hotspots. They key word is “customers.” The hotspots may be technically reachable by the public, but unless you are a current cable broadband subscriber, using them typically requires the purchase of a daily use pass.

Claim: “Cable will continue to invest, building this platform of possibilities, if we preserve the freedom that created the Internet.”

Our finding: EMPTY CLAIMS The NCTA’s commitment that the cable industry will continue to invest is fulfilled if one cable operator spends just $1 on their network infrastructure. Notice the NCTA does not commit its members to stopping the ongoing decline in broadband investment, much less move to increase it. It also has no explanation for the annual rate increases and new fees and surcharges customers are paying, as the gap between broadband pricing abroad and at home grows even larger. 

“Preserve the freedom” is code language for maintaining the deregulation that the industry has used to its advantage to raise prices in a broadband market most Americans will find is either a monopoly or duopoly. Although the NCTA implies it, the cable industry did not create the Internet. It was a government project (gasp!) initially developed through contracts with the Department of Defense and soon broadened to include educational institutions. The first significant commercial ISPs emerged only in the late 1980s. Cable industry broadband finally showed up around a decade after that. The industry’s claims are akin to boasting Lewis and Clark discovered Kansas City… in 1966.

If the cable industry gets some oversight of its broadband service and enforced protection of Net Neutrality, does that mean investment will flee? First, providers are already spending a lower percentage of capital on broadband expansion in the current deregulatory environment. Second, as broadband becomes the cable industry’s top earner, it provides an endless supply of revenue without the headaches of negotiating programming contracts, dealing with cable television network rate increases, and the growing phenomenon of cord-cutting. In other words, without significant new competition, it remains a license to print money.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/NCTA The Infinite Internet 1-20-15.mp4

The NCTA is trying to make hay with its new video, “The Infinite Internet” which purports to share how Big Cable’s vision of the Internet is making new things possible. They don’t mention many of their member companies want to place a usage cap on that innovation, even as they continue to raise prices way out of proportion of the cost of delivering the service. It’s classic cable industry propaganda. (1:08)

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