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Google Fiber Testing New Landline Phone Service: Google Fiber Phone

Phillip Dampier February 1, 2016 Competition, Consumer News, Google Fiber & Wireless No Comments

Google-Fiber-Rabbit-logoDespite predictions Google Fiber had no interest in offering customers landline telephone service, Google has quietly begun testing a new residential voice service called Google Fiber Phone that appeared to be powered by its Google Voice service.

Google hoped to keep the trial confidential, but one of its subscribers shared their invitation with the Washington Post:

We are always looking to provide new offerings to members of our Fiber Trusted Tester program which gives you early access to confidential products and features.

Our latest offering is Google Fiber Phone, which gives you the chance to add home phone service to your current Fiber service plan and offers several advanced features:

  • A phone number that lives in the cloud. With Fiber Phone you can use the right phone for your needs whether it’s your mobile device on the go or your landline at home. No more worrying about cell reception or your battery life when your home.
  • Voicemail the way it should be. Get your messages transcribed delivered directly to your email.
  • Get only the calls you want when you want. Spam filtering, call screening, and do not disturb make sure the right people can get in touch with you at the right time.

With Fiber Phone you have the option to get a new number or transfer an existing landline or cell number. If you’re interested in testing this product please fill out this form within one week.

Please be aware that testing Google Fiber Phone will require a service visit in which a Fiber team member will come to your home to install a piece of equipment. If you’re selected for this Trusted Tester group, we will be actively seeking your feedback – both good and bad – so that we can improve Fiber Phone once we launch it to all of our customers.

Please remember that the Trusted Tester Program gives you early access to features which are not yet available to the public, so please help us keep this confidential.

Thanks,

The Google Fiber Team

Google-voiceThe feature set sounds almost identical to Google Voice, which offers free phone service. For the first time, Google is prepared to allow customers to port existing landline numbers to its phone service. Previously, Google Voice customers could only port a cell phone number or select a new number to start the service.

Google Fiber has only sold single or double-play packages of Internet and/or television service. Customers looking for telephone service had to select a third-party provider like Vonage or Ooma or be technically proficient to get Google Voice service up and running with Voice over IP equipment. Including Google Fiber Phone would allow Google to sell a triple-play package.

The technician visit required is likely to involve wiring Google Fiber’s beta test phone line into a home’s existing telephone wiring, which will let customers use their current home and cordless phones.

Google has not announced a price for the service, but there is every chance it could come free with Google Fiber, which starts at $70 a month for 1 gigabit broadband service.

Despite the increasing frequency of announcements promoting new Google Fiber cities, Google’s currently operating fiber network remains modest. In October 2015, Bernstein Research estimated Google Fiber passed about 427,000 homes and 96,000 business locations, primarily in Kansas City and Provo, Utah, according to Multichannel News. Bernstein estimated Google Fiber has about 120,000 paid customers nationwide.

FCC Chairman Rejects Mobile Internet as Useful Competitor to Wired Broadband

Wheeler

Wheeler

FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler considers mobile broadband a poor substitute for fixed/wired Internet access. A fact sheet released by Wheeler’s office shows he is convinced America still has a broadband problem — speeds are too slow, competition is lacking, and 4G/LTE wireless broadband is so usage-capped or speed throttled, it is not a serious substitute for traditional wired broadband.

Wheeler claimed, “approximately 34 million Americans still lack access to fixed broadband at the FCC’s benchmark speed of 25Mbps for downloads, 3Mbps for uploads,” and has previously said those that do often find those speeds from only a single provider, typically a cable company.

Wheeler doesn’t dismiss the need for wireless Internet access, but he considers it an add-on for customers on the go. Other highlights from the fact sheet:

  • A persistent urban-rural digital divide has left 39 percent of the rural population without access to fixed broadband. By comparison, only 4 percent living in urban areas lack access;
  • 41 percent of Tribal Lands residents lack access;
  • 41 percent of schools have not met the Commission’s short-term goal of 100Mbps per 1,000 students/staff;
  • Only 9 percent of schools have fiber connections capable of meeting the FCC’s long-term goal of 1Gbps per 1,000 students.

Wheeler also said that U.S. broadband continues to lag behind other developed nations, only ranking 16th out of the top 34 countries.

Wheeler thinks wireless broadband is an essential service for many, but it should not be compared with wired broadband, as the two services are distinct from one-another:

  • Fixed broadband offers high-speed, high-capacity connections capable of supporting bandwidth-intensive uses, such as streaming video, by multiple users in a household. But fixed broadband can’t provide consumers with the mobile Internet access required to support myriad needs outside the home and while working remotely.
  • Mobile devices provide access to the web while on the go, and are especially useful for real-time two-way interactions, mapping applications, and social media. But consumers who rely solely on mobile broadband tend to perform a more limited range of tasks and are significantly more likely to incur additional usage fees or forego use of the Internet.

Time Warner Cable Maxx Upgrades Coming This Year in the Northeast/Midwest

twc maxxTime Warner Cable has announced it will refocus its Maxx upgrade program, boosting broadband speeds to up to 300Mbps, on the Northeast and Midwest in 2016.

CEO Robert Marcus told investors on a morning conference call the company will continue making robust investments in improving its network and service regardless of the pending merger with Charter Communications.

“We have an ambitious 2016 financial and operating plan marked by continued subscriber growth, better financial performance, and continued investment to improve the customer experience,” Marcus said. “We plan to continue the rollout of TWC Maxx, completing cities begun in 2015, and adding cities primarily in the Northeast and Midwest.”

Coinciding with that announcement, Time Warner this afternoon announced its first new Maxx upgrade for 2016 will focus on the Hudson Valley in upstate New York.

Starting this week, customers will receive communications from TWC outlining a transition to a 100%-digital network. Moving to an all-digital lineup is required to free up the necessary capacity to offer faster Internet speeds in the Hudson Valley area, beginning this spring.

“With TWC Maxx, we’re essentially reinventing the TWC experience,” said, Gary Withey, area vice president of operations for Albany and Hudson Valley. “We will boost Internet speeds for customers up to six times faster, dramatically improve the TV product and set a high bar in our industry for differentiated, exceptional customer service.”

New York's Hudson Valley

New York’s Hudson Valley

TWC Maxx will be available to all customers in the following Hudson Valley service areas: Hunter, Liberty, Middletown, Monticello, Newburgh, Olive, Port Ewen, Port Jervis, Poughkeepsie, Rhinebeck, Rosendale, Saugerties, Walden, Woodstock and Wurtsboro.

Time Warner Cable’s resumed focus on the Northeast comes more than a year after launching Maxx upgrades in the New York City area. This year, upgrades are expected to target upstate New York, western Massachusetts, Maine, and Ohio.

Customers receiving Maxx upgrades get much faster Internet service or the opportunity to downgrade to a cheaper Internet plan that still delivers up to six times faster speed than customers now receive.

Starting this spring, customers who subscribe to Standard, formerly up to 15Mbps, will receive up to 50Mbps, customers who subscribe to Extreme, formerly up to 30Mbps, will receive up to 200Mbps; and customers who subscribe to Ultimate, formerly up to 50Mbps, will receive up to 300Mbps, with no change in their monthly plan price.

Some customers will need to switch out their modems to receive the faster speeds and they will be communicated with via mail, email and phone messages with information on how to obtain a new modem. Stop the Cap! still recommends customers buy their own modems and save the $10 a month Time Warner now charges to lease a cable modem.

The transition to an all-digital network will require video customers without TWC digital equipment (customers who plug their cable line directly into the TV, VCR or similar device) to order a TWC digital adapter.

TWC will offer existing TV customers one or more digital adapters at no charge, for any outlets that do not currently have digital equipment, through June 29, 2017. To qualify, customers must order their digital adapters by October 23, 2016. After this free period, each adapter will be billed at the prevailing price. TWC residential customers can order digital adapters through www.TWC.com/digitaladapter, calling 1-844-841-5085 or in person at a Time Warner Cable store.

Stop the Cap! Files Formal Opposition to Charter-TWC Merger in California

stcStop the Cap! this week formally filed our opposition to the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), citing our concerns about data caps/usage-based pricing, Internet competitiveness, affordability, and quality of service.

Matthew Friedman, Stop the Cap!’s new director of our California branch, spoke in opposition to the transaction at a public meeting held by the CPUC in Los Angeles on Tuesday. Friedman authored our formal 10,500-word opposition, particularly focusing attention on Charter’s commitment not to cap or meter broadband usage for only three years after the deal is approved.

Charter’s temporary “good behavior” commitments open Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers to the potential of the same kind of usage caps and usage pricing being tested by Comcast, with little likelihood imminent competition will give consumers alternative cap-free choices.

Stop the Cap! proposed a permanent ban on compulsory data caps with New York regulators, which was not adopted. In California, we are asking the CPUC to consider allowing Charter’s “good behavior” commitments to expire only when customers have access to near-equivalent competitors offering unlimited service options, either from resellers of Charter’s broadband network or from existing or new competitors.

It is our view usage caps and usage-based billing represent an end run around Net Neutrality and will be used to limit online video competition.

We also repeat our assertion that Charter’s commitments for Time Warner Cable customers are less compelling than the benefits of Time Warner Cable’s own ongoing upgrade program, dubbed “Maxx.” Charter has committed to providing Time Warner customers with broadband speeds up to 100Mbps. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers a maximum speed of 300Mbps — three times faster than Charter.

Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet option, available to any customer without conditions or contracts would be terminated, with customers forced to spend just under $60 for entry-level broadband service. Charter’s offers remove customer choices from the marketplace in an attempt to “simplify” pricing. But that will also force customers into packages with services they don’t want or need.

Here is our formal filing in full, also available for download:

Before the CALIFORNIA PUBLIC UTILITIES COMMISSION

      

Re: Application 15-07-009

Charter/Time Warner/Bright House Transfer

Comments on Data Caps and Usage Based Pricing and Statement of Opposition

January 26, 2016

Stop the Cap! California Branch, Matthew Friedman

 

Stop the Cap! is a consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, usage based pricing, speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.

Executive Summary

Part 1 of this document proposes a mitigation condition relating to data caps and usage based pricing (DC/UBP) that would not sunset after an arbitrary number of years. Instead, it would sunset based on the existence of actual competition in the wireline broadband marketplace.

This document details how data caps and usage based pricing present significant and numerous harms to consumers and competition in general, and why the CPUC’s approval of this transaction would make DC/UBP much more likely to be imposed on existing Time Warner Cable subscribers. We detail TWC’s long-standing, public, and vocal commitment against imposing DC/UBP. We explain why the Commission should be particularly suspect of Charter when it comes to DC/UBP. Finally, we show that Charter’s opening testimony actually supports the mitigation condition that is being proposed here.

Stop the Cap! believes that this transaction is clearly not in the public interest, and the Commission should deny the transfer. If however, for some reason the Commission decides to approve the transfer, we respectfully submit this mitigation condition to protect Californians from one of the severe harms this merger will certainly bring.

Part 2 of this document is a broader examination of why the transaction is not in the public interest. We detail how Time Warner Cable is stronger company with superior offerings to Charter, and we show why Charter is proposing a deal that is not only not in the public interest, but a large step backwards for consumers.

The Commission should deny this transfer.

The Proposed Transaction is Not in the Public Interest

Stop the Cap! strongly believes that it’s clear that the Commission should NOT approve this transaction. The testimony of the Intervenors has shown that the “benefits” Charter is claiming are tenuous at best, if even present at all. The only real benefit of this transaction appears to be to the applicants’ shareholders, and possibly not even them.

There are an immense amount of risks, potential harms, and even certain harms that will come to consumers if this transaction is allowed to proceed–more than were present even in the Comcast/TWC scenario. The certain harms far outweigh any potential benefits.

In these comments we focus on data caps and usage based pricing in particular. These practices are almost always detrimental to consumers, as TWC management has recognized, and they shouldn’t be imposed at all. One of the negative aspects of this proposed merger is that TWC customers would lose the “no data caps EVER” pledge from TWC. If for some reason the Commission decides to approve the transfer, the loss of TWC’s anti-data cap corporate attitude must be mitigated, and in a way that matches the permanence of TWC’s current pledge.

If, however, the Commission does decide to approve this transfer, the loss of TWC’s vocal commitment to NEVER impose DC/UBP must be mitigated, and it must be mitigated in a way that matches the permanence of TWC’s commitment. Mitigation conditions that are only temporary in nature are not sufficient to offset those harms.

Proposed Mitigation Condition

New Charter shall refrain from imposing data caps and/or usage-based pricing (DC/UBP) on all of its broadband offerings. New Charter will refrain from increasing prices on non-DC/UBP plans to compensate for this mitigation condition.

This mitigation condition shall sunset when ONE of the following scenarios comes to pass; however, the condition shall sunset only for those New Charter customers for whom one of the following scenarios is true. In all other New Charter areas where none of these scenarios exist, the mitigation condition shall remain in force.

  1. There are at least three (including New Charter) competing wireline broadband providers for the area in which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition. Resellers leasing lines from New Charter may be counted as competitors only if New Charter does not impose any sort of usage based billing or data caps on the resellers.
  1. There are at least three competing broadband providers (both wired and wireless) for the area in which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition, and the wireless providers offer a non-usage-based billing plan that is no more expensive than similar non-usage-based billing plans offered by the wireline providers. Providers that offer unlimited data but throttle speed after a certain amount of data is consumed shall be considered as utilising data caps for the sake of this evaluation.

Should a New Charter customer demonstrate that the competing wireless provider is unable to supply actual broadband speed to their physical address (for instance, due to poor reception), then New Charter shall continue to offer that customer data plans not subject to DC/UBP. Additionally, New Charter shall refrain from increasing the price of this non DC/UBP plan above the cost of the comparable DC/UBP plan (before considering any data overage fees).

  1. There is a functional community-owned broadband alternative available to the customers for which New Charter wishes to sunset this mitigation condition.

This condition defines “broadband” as providing the minimum broadband speed as set by the FCC at the time of evaluation for sunsetting.

What is DC/UBP?

“Usage Based Pricing” (sometimes referred to as “Metered Billing” or “Data Caps”) is when an Internet Service Provider places an upper limit on the amount of data a customer can use in a given month. Typically in wireline internet situations, if the customer goes over their monthly allowance, they are charged an additional fee for a set amount of additional data. If this additional data allotment is used, the customer is charged again for a second allotment, and so on until the monthly billing period ends. For instance, Comcast charges its data capped customers $10 for each additional 50GB used.[1] A good way to understand DC/UBP is to begin with what it is not.

DC/UBP is NOT about network management

This assertion has been debunked by scientific research for almost ten years,[2] and now even ISPs themselves are acknowledging the same. In January 2015, National Cable and Telecommunications Association president Michael Powell told a Minority Media and Telecommunications Association audience that while a lot of people had tried to label the cable industry’s interest in the issue as about congestion management, “That’s wrong,” he said. “Our principal purpose is how to fairly monetize a high fixed cost.”[3] However, even this explanation is myth-based. (See discussion next section.)

On 14 August 2015, Comcast’s Vice President of Internet Services, Jason Livingood, stated publicly that DC/UBP was not a network management decision, but a “business decision” that he had no part in making.[4]

Then, on 5 November 2015, an internal Comcast document instructing CS Reps how to answer questions about DC/UBP was leaked. That document instructs Comcast personnel “Do not say: The [DC/UBP] Program is about network management. (It is not.)[5]   (Emphasis added).

Time Warner Cable’s CEO Robert Marcus similarly has spoken about DC/UBP as a business decision (and is his opinion a bad one).[6]

DC/UBP is NOT about pricing fairness

If DC/UBP were truly about pricing fairness, subscribers would pay for exactly the amount of data they used, and no more. This model would be like water or power: there would be no monthly charge whatsoever (or perhaps only a miniscule one): if you used a kilobyte, you’d pay for a kilobyte. If you happened to be on vacation for a month and didn’t use any data, then your broadband bill would be zero. There would be no startup or termination charges. There would be no modem fees, just as there are no gas meter or electrical transformer fees. Tight government regulation over pricing would be beneficial as well.

None of these conditions is present in any of the wireline DC/UBP plans in the US currently, and none that I know of anywhere in the world, though I haven’t done an extensive search. Regardless, it’s clear that the purpose of DC/UBP is not to provide “pricing fairness.”

The GAO’s explanation of DC/UBP

In 2014, the U.S. Government Accountability Office performed a study on DC/UBP. The GAO determined that while it is possible for providers to employ DC/UBP to the consumers’ advantage, “providers facing limited competition could use UBP to increase profits, potentially resulting in negative effects, including increased prices, reductions in content accessed, and increased threats to network security. Several researchers and stakeholders that the GAO interviewed said that UBP could reduce innovation for applications and content if consumers ration their data.”[7]

Simply put: absent sufficient competition, the purpose is two-fold. First, DC/UBP allows cable providers to use their monopoly (or in some much rarer cases duopoly) powers to extract additional revenues from customers. Upon the imposition of DC/UBP, the vast majority of customers have no competing provider of wireline broadband to whom they can turn.[8]

Secondly, DC/UBP gives cable internet providers the ability to use their “terminating monopoly” power to quash competition to their core video offerings. For instance, SlingTV CEO Roger Lynch in early December accused Comcast of setting its data caps just low enough to prevent customers from replacing cable TV with online video streaming.[9]

To see how this terminating monopoly power works, consider one of the increasing number of “cord cutting” households. By some estimates, 1 in 7 Americans are currently television cord-cutters.[10] These consumers do not subscribe to cable television. Instead, they purchase broadband only and subscribe to services such as Hulu, Netflix, Vudu, YouTube, Crackle, Fandor, etc. These services offer direct competition to cable providers’ video offerings. The imposition of “usage based billing” can artificially increase the price of cord cutting so that it is no longer a viable option for consumers.

A typical “cord-cutting” home uses an average of 328GB/mo,[11] exceeding most data-capped plans’ initial allowances. In fact, in October the Associated Press reported that 8% (and rising) of Comcast customers regularly exceed their data allowances and are charged overage fees.[12] As the emergence of UHD and 4k video offerings by streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon continues, these percentages will rise dramatically.[13] Since cable operators’ core video offerings are excluded from a user’s data count, it can quickly become cheaper to subscribe to a bloated cable package than pay data overage fees in addition to a la carte streaming service subscriptions. Then consumers must pay still more additional fees for DVRs to replace streaming’s de facto “on demand” nature. And yet more fees for additional cable boxes. This then is the true purpose of DC/UBP: increasing revenue, in part from overage fees and in part from pushing consumers into traditional cable packages with additional fees.

Potential Public Harms from DC/UBP

DC/UBP financially harms ratepayers, especially lower income customers

The effect of the financial penalties that streaming Netflix (and other such services) carries under DC/UBP plans will push consumers to New Charter’s own, more expensive, subscription offerings since watching video through New Charter’s traditional cable network would not count against consumers’ data allotments. These services are bundled such that subscribers must pay for hundreds of channels they have no interest in in order to get the 10-20 that they actually want to watch, thus artificially inflating their cable bill. (For instance, a recent Civic Science survey found that 56% of pay-tv subscribers would drop ESPN from their lineup in order to save $8/mo on their cable bills.[14] Cable companies, however, do not offer this as an option.) When DC/UBP is not present, cord-cutting is cheaper than cable, sometimes significantly so depending on the type of television in which the cord-cutter is interested.[15] Lower income Californians will be hit especially hard as DC/UBP forces them into those bloated, expensive cable “bundles.” For lower income viewers, this money-saving alternative will no longer be accessible since their prices are artificially inflated by DC/UBP.

This in turn stifles demand for broadband, running counter to Section 706(a)’s mandate. The CPUC has a statutory duty to protect ratepayers from a monopoly player stifling competition and investment, and that mandate is not limited to an arbitrary number of years.

The Commission is correct to want to expand broadband access to underserved areas, but it must also protect against that same access being used to prevent lower-income Californians from saving money on television bills by “cord-cutting.”

New Charter can use DC/UBP to circumvent Net Neutrality rules

Comcast is currently attempting an end-run around net neutrality rules and strongly pushing customers to their new streaming service “Stream TV” over competitors such as Hulu and Netflix. Comcast is exempting their own (more expensive) cord-cutting streaming service from usage-based metering, while competing services count against subscribers’ data allotments. While this is illegal under net neutrality, Comcast is arguing that since Stream TV exclusively uses its own IP network, and not the internet per se, net neutrality doesn’t apply.[16] As Wired.com put it, “Comcast may have found a major net neutrality loophole.”[17] (Note that this example directly contradicts the testimony of Charter’s Dr. Scott Morton.[18])

This is a loophole that New Charter could also use in order to attempt to circumvent net neutrality regulations. However, if the CPUC bars New Charter from instituting DC/UBP, this end-run loophole would be closed, and New Charter would not be able to engage in the anti-competitive customer-harming behavior that Comcast is now attempting.

It’s important to note here that the Commission cannot rely on the federal government to provide this protection to Californians. A number of U.S. Congress members have filed briefs requesting that courts overturn the FCC’s net neutrality rules.[19] Further, at the time of this writing, a number of house members are attempting to insert a net neutrality defunding clause into the omnibus spending bill.[20]

Under a Republican president and Congress, it’s clear that California should expect the federal government to abandon any and all open internet and net neutrality regulations. But as with climate change and carbon emissions legislation, California has the opportunity to lead the country by ensuring net neutrality and protecting competition, in part by adopting this proposed mitigation measure.

DC/UBP also gives ISPs the ability to leverage sponsored data programs. Such programs pose an existential threat to net neutrality, but on a more basic level, harm consumers by increasing fees for the services that participate. Sponsored data programs also present a barrier to entry for new, innovative, and less well-funded competing services.[21]

DC/UBP facilitates anti-competitive behavior

As the GAO report put it,  “…fixed providers—many of whom also provide television video content—could use UBP as a means to raise the price for watching online streaming video services—a competitor to their video services—as households continue to substitute television with streaming video.”[22] New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin points out that usage-based billing would be one of Charter’s strongest potential weapons against online video competitors.[23]

DC/UBP hinders innovation and investment

Again, from the GAO report:

“Because UBP can make it more expensive to watch data-heavy content such as streaming video, it may discourage people from accessing such content and, therefore, discourage them from eliminating their television service. This might adversely affect firms that provide online video streaming services and reduce competition and innovation in the market for providing streaming video content, thereby negatively affecting consumers.

In addition, two industry stakeholders we interviewed believe UBP could in general inhibit innovation that results from experimentation and unlimited access to the Internet. Greater innovation could result in the development of more content and applications that consumers demand and value. Some Internet users, such as heavy data users, may pay more for access under UBP. As a result, some of them may limit their Internet use—as mentioned earlier, some focus group participants said that they have reduced their mobile data usage as a result of UBP—particularly of data-heavy content and applications such as online learning and video. This could lead to reduced use of some beneficial Internet applications and innovation in such applications. For example, one public interest group said that the limits that UBP may impose on the market for innovative applications and content may limit the potential of new startups.”[24]

The report goes on to discuss additional ways DC/UBP might reduce innovation, and the above citation is worth reading in full.

These are the same concerns present in Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed Decision in the Comcast proceeding.[25] The alternate PD discusses these concerns as potential harms of Comcast creating a bottleneck between retail subscribers and edge providers, however, the same concerns are equally applicable to an ISP instituting DC/UBP.

DC/UBP has negative effects on network security

According to a 2012 study, DC/UBP may result in consumers—in an attempt to reduce data usage—foregoing automatic security updates to their computers, which could have negative implications for network security.[26]

DC/UBP removes educational opportunities for lower income citizens

In a June 2014 article, US News and World Report explained how online education can provide a significantly lower-cost and more flexible path to a degree. The article cites a Georgia Institute of Technology announcement that it would be offering an online master’s degree in computer science for $6,600 – about $35,000 less than its on-ground program.[27]

The online education model can put a higher degree in reach for countless people who otherwise could not afford that opportunity. However, this model relies heavily on video teleconferencing and video lectures. DC/UBP could inflate the price of online education such that it too could be unaffordable for lower-income Californians, completely pricing them out of higher degrees that could move them out of poverty into the middle class.

Charter could use DC/UBP as a loophole to completely avoid providing “Lifeline” low cost internet service, thus increasing the digital divide.

Envision a worst-case scenario where New Charter agrees to carry on TWC’s existing $14.99 low-cost plan, but caps the data at 5GB, then charges (as Comcast is currently trialing) $10 for each additional 50GB the subscriber uses. For a typical cord-cutting household that uses approximately 330GB of data a month, that would make the price of this “low-cost lifeline” plan $79.95/mo. A “low-cost” internet option of $80/month will do nothing to close the digital divide.[28]

Mitigating the Loss of TWC’s Commitment Against DC/UBP

Time Warner Cable has frequently stated publicly that it will “NEVER” impose DC/UBP. Over time, TWC has demonstrated an extremely different corporate culture and attitude towards DC/UBP than Charter has demonstrated. TWC’s CEO Robert Marcus has time and again made it clear that compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson TWC learned after customers pushed back and forced it to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and Austin, San Antonio, and Beaumont, Tex. in April 2009.[29]

TWC subsequently admitted their flirtation with DC/UBP was a mistake. That story, along with the pledge to never impose usage-based billing, is still on Time Warner Cable’s official blog at the time of this writing.[30]

The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again. In fact, Marcus often seems to be evangelizing AGAINST DC/UBP in general. On an October 2014 Wall Street analyst conference call, Marcus stated “We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think is something that customers value and are willing to pay for. The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.”[31]

It’s notable that while Comcast maintained the price point of the plans it converted from unlimited to mandatory UBP, TWC’s optional UBP plans came with a price discount. However, the discounts on those packages were minimal, and as of 11/21/2015 those packages are no longer advertised on the TWC website.

Marcus has continued to be publicly vocal about TWC’s decision to keep its non-usage-based pricing intact. He spoke to this point at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet, and Telecom Conference in March of 2014,[32] and again in a July 2015 investor conference call.[33]

On an October 2015 investor call Marcus was questioned by analyst Jonathan Chaplin on TWC’s lack of DC/UBP. Marcus responded that the way to increase revenue was to deliver more utility. DC/UBP is the opposite of that, he said.[34]

If the CPUC approves this transaction without mitigation, it will be allowing for the destruction of the largest US wireline broadband entity dedicated to NEVER instituting compulsory DC/UBP in favor of a mere three year commitment. It would forever remove a policy competitor that subscribers to other wireline broadband providers could point to and say, “Yes, a cable company can be profitable without DC/UBP.” More directly, the loss of TWC’s corporate culture and belief that DC/UBP is a poor business decision would be an immense harm to current and future TWC customers.

Charter Is Particularly Suspect Concerning DC/UBP

This merger’s financing model gives New Charter every incentive to impose DC/UBP

Post-merger, New Charter will be in a precarious financial position.[35] One of the strongest incentives for rate increases is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. The New York Department of Public Service staff, in examining this transaction for that state, concluded that New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[36]

Charter’s Mr. Fisher disagrees with this analysis in his opening testimony, stating that “New Charter will be financially healthy to the benefit of its shareholders and consumers throughout the State of California.”[37] [emphasis added]. If this is true, then this proposed mitigation will help ensure that consumers do in fact see some of those benefits, and that they are not all given only to shareholders, an occurrence that happens far too often in transactions such as the one currently under consideration. This is especially important since when Mr. Fisher later lists the benefits that will come from the merger, none of the benefits he lists are in the area of consumer pricing.[38] As we detail later in these comments, prices will actually go UP after the merger.

Charter has provided inaccurate information about their history with DC/UBP

Charter’s expert Dr. Fiona Scott Morton, a professor of economics at the Yale School of Management, stated in FCC testimony:

“For 3 years, New Charter will not charge consumers additional fees to use specific third-party Internet applications, or engage in zero-rating (discriminatory exemptions from a data cap).

These binding commitments provide further assurance beyond the economic reasoning I describe below — assurance that New Charter will not engage in these types of conduct: charging higher interconnection fees, using discriminatory data plans, or reducing the quality of OVD signals. (Note that Charter already does not have data caps for its residential broadband customers. Notwithstanding the dramatic but welcome rise in data usage by broadband customers, Charter has not had an active data cap since January 2012.)”[39]

But this statement is simply incorrect. As of November 2013 Charter had data caps ranging from 100-500GB.[40] Customers in some areas were called by Charter for exceeding their usage allowance,[41] and usage rationing remained in Charter’s Acceptable Use Policy until late 2014,[42] not January 2012 as Dr. Scott Morton claims. In fact, as of 21 November 2015, Charter’s AUP still allows it to define “excessive use of bandwidth” however it sees fit, and take any action that Charter in its sole opinion it deems reasonable.[43] Dr. Scott Morton does not believe Charter has any interest in imposing data caps on customers, despite the fact Charter quietly shelved existing caps on Oct. 1, 2014, just several months before unveiling its bid for both Time Warner and Bright House, neither of which have capped customer usage.[44]

The FCC is rightly concerned about this discrepancy, and has requested that Charter detail when it adopted bandwidth usage caps, when it dropped them, and why.[45] The CPUC would be right to be concerned as well.

Charter has a history of misleading customers and regulators.

For example, Charter advertises Spectrum TV Stream service at $12.99/mo, when most users will actually pay at least $20/mo, some more.[46] While some “padding” via fees is unfortunately normal, this is upwards of a 50% differential. Note that this is in direct contradiction to Mr. Fisher’s opening statement to the CPUC, in which he claims that Charter “does not separately charge users incremental fees that other providers in the industry commonly add on to the advertised price… As a result, consumers have a clearer understanding of… the price that they will see on their bill.”[47]

Another example: The FCC is concerned about 26% owner John Malone’s involvement with this merger, as he has engaged in anticompetitive behaviour in the past.[48] Malone, whom Senator Al Gore once referred to as “The Darth Vader of telecom,”[49] is currently best known as the owner of SiriusXM satellite radio. The two satellite companies merged in 2008 with a mitigation condition forbidding any rate hikes for three years.[50] Upon the expiration of that condition, SiriusXM promised investors an immediate price hike.[51] Based on past history, there’s no reason to believe that any mitigation conditions the CPUC imposes on this transaction won’t be discarded immediately upon expiration.

And a third example: on 20 January 2016 Charter released the results of a survey that it sponsored itself. Charter claims that the results show public support for the merger. However, the statements Charter used in the poll pertaining to data caps were extremely misleading. Respondents were told by the pollster that  “Charter has said that it will not impose data limits on customers after the merger.”[52] However, there was no mention of the incredibly brief 3 year time limit on this commitment, nor the fact that Time Warner has promised for years to never impose data limits on customers. It is definitely misleading, possibly deceitful, for Charter to use responses to this deceptive statement as “proof” of public support for this transaction.

A fourth example: Dr. Scott Morton’s November 2 statement is less than forthcoming in many regards. On Page 10 (Section 27) Dr. Scott Morton completely omits a fourth characteristic of a valuable MVPD partner: the commitment to refrain from implementing DC/UBP. Implementation of DC/UBP would artificially increase the cost of the OVD’s product to the consumer, thus decreasing demand for that service. This increased cost over which the OVD has no control is in effect a barrier to market entry, and therefore a disincentive to innovation and reduction of competition.

It’s also telling that Dr. Scott Morton’s conclusion in Part 49 is that Charter’s “technology” promotes entry of OVDs. Conspicuously absent is the statement that Charter’s “policies” promote entry of OVDs. Even more conspicuous is that as noted in Part 128, Charter promises a mere three years of refraining from disadvantaging OVDs. What Charter is promising is both flimsy and transparent: “You have nothing to worry about, but only hold us to it for three years.”

Still further, in Part 130, Dr. Scott Morton notes Netflix’s statement that “Charter’s new peering policy is a welcome and significant departure from the efforts of some ISPs to collect excess tolls to the Internet.” However, the CPUC must guard against New Charter shifting these “excess tolls” directly onto subscribers as the GAO report referenced earlier warned. DC/UBP would be a prime means for New Charter to do just that.

A fifth example: the opening testimony of Charter’s Mr. Falk is likewise misleading on a number of points. Mr. Falk claims that the merger will come with “no countervailing harms,”[53] however, according to his own statement, there are clearly price increases coming for many TWC customers.[54] Mr. Falk testifies about Charter’s “customer friendly billing practices,” but in reality those practices are not friendly to consumers at all.[55] Mr. Falk then goes on to make a claim that is flatly contradicted by his own expert’s testimony to the FCC,[56] makes misleading statements about the significance of wireline competition,[57] and a statement that is materially false regarding pricing of Charter’s base internet speed tier.[58]

Charter has flatly failed to comply with multiple Commission rulings.

Charter has refused to comply with certain requirements of DIVCA even though the company submitted an affidavit to the Commission swearing to do so.[59] More recently, Charter ignored the January 20 ALJ ruling of A.15-07-009, which required that “Charter and TWCIS shall provide notice to their respective customers not less than 5, nor more than 30 days, prior to” the

Los Angeles Public Participation Hearing scheduled for January 26.[60]  As of the morning of January 25, I had received no such notice either by email or postal mail, even though I hold not one but two California-based TWC accounts. Note that I did check my SPAM folder, and no notices had been diverted there.

The point being… both consumers and the CPUC should be extremely suspect of anything Charter says regarding the benefits of this merger, including their reasoning that DC/UBP is something that they have no interest in instituting. Mitigations should be designed to protect consumers against a potentially hostile and untrustworthy monopolistic player, particularly around an issue as nuanced and complex as usage based pricing.

Charter’s Opening Testimony Supports this Proposed Condition

New Charter should not object to this proposed mitigation condition, since it is substantially supported by Dr. Scott Morton’s November 2 statement, as well as the opening testimony from Mr. Fisher, the Senior VP of Corporate Finance at Charter, and Mr. Falk, Charter’s Senior VP for State Government Affairs.

In her November 2 testimony, Part 132, Dr. Scott Morton discusses New Charter’s open internet commitments. While not addressing DC/UBP directly, in her discussion of other conditions addressing issues such as paid prioritization, zero rating, throttling, etc, Dr. Scott Morton states that the fact these conditions have a finite life should not be cause for concern. She explains that in three years’ time market conditions would be such that “a strategy of foreclosure or otherwise trying to impede OVDs would be even more unprofitable for New Charter.”

Dr. Scott Morton then suggests that should New Charter decide to engage in anticompetitive behaviour in three years’ time, consumers could simply switch to an alternate broadband provider. However, as Dr. Scott Morton goes on to point out, there is currently a lack of competing broadband providers in most of New Charter’s proposed footprint. Other experts have also testified that the US market for fixed broadband is not effectively competitive, and this situation will persist for the foreseeable future.[61] This is true for New Charter’s proposed footprint in California as well.[62]

“Currently AT&T/Verizon have usage allotments that make it economically unattractive to use wireless as an in-home broadband service,” Dr. Scott Morton explains. “T-Mobile and Sprint do offer “unlimited” plans, however, they… de-prioritize traffic above usage thresholds…”[63] So even by her own testimony, wireless providers do not count as potential broadband competition for New Charter.

Dr. Scott Morton goes on to examine what little wireline broadband competition does exist, but as the CPUC is well aware, the companies she cites are not available in most of New Charter’s proposed footprint.

In summary, Dr. Scott Morton testifies that in three years time there will be adequate broadband competition present to prevent New Charter from behaving in an anti-competitive manner. If she is correct, then this proposed mitigation condition will sunset based on the existence of that very competition. If she is incorrect about the amount of time it takes for that competitive marketplace to form, then this mitigation will simply continue to protect consumers until the competition Dr. Scott Morton discussed does actually come into existence.

The mitigation condition being proposed here simply ensures that New Charter only has the ability to behave in an anticompetitive way when the “competing broadband provider[s]” Dr. Scott references are actually in existence. It’s designed in a way to be fair to both consumers, and New Charter.

Why Competition Must Be the Only Trigger for Sunsetting this Condition

The 2014 GAO report examined four mobile providers that impose DC/UBP. ALL OF THEM have increased the variety of plans offered, but even more significantly, ALL OF THEM have increased the amount of their monthly data allowances. That’s not true of the fixed internet providers studied. Some of those providers have introduced higher priced, higher speed plans that also come with increased allowances, but NONE of them have increased the data allowances without an accompanying price increase.[64]

The obvious difference between the wireless and wireline providers’ circumstances is the presence of competition in the mobile sphere, and the lack of competition in the wireline sphere. The GAO report affirms this analysis.[65] The report goes on to explain that without adequate competition (and much evidence proves that duopoly markets do not constitute effective competition[66]), wireline customers have fewer plan choices. Only two of the wireline providers examined even offered discounted UBP plans. The two that did offer discounted plans offered discounts far inferiour to the discounts offered by the more competitive wireless market.[67]

For further evidence, consider the example of Comcast’s usage-based pricing “trial.” Comcast’s DC/UBP policies have resulted in a deluge of FCC complaints, potentially upwards of 11,000.[68] Comcast customers report gross inaccuracies in the company’s data meter, resulting in erroneous overage charges.[69] Customers are also reporting that once they pay Comcast’s $35 add-on for truly unlimited service, speeds for services that compete with Comcast (such as Netflix and Hulu) actually DROP.[70] The company then uses these speed issues to attempt to force customers into renting a modem from Comcast. When pressed hard enough by customers with technical knowledge of modems and routers, however, Comcast reps finally do resolve the speed issues remotely.[71]

The logical action for these customers would be to leave Comcast for a different provider; however, for the vast majority of them there is no other provider available. While admittedly Comcast is a different company from Charter, this example underscores the absolute necessity to sunset mitigation conditions only when actual wireline competition exists in the market…  NOT after an arbitrary number of years. As Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed decision stated:

“We find that conditions that only temporarily or incompletely mitigate identified harms to the public interest are not sufficient to offset those harms. Such conditions also do not ‘preserve the jurisdiction of the commission,’ as required by § 854(c)(7).[72]

Summary on DC/UBP

In the Comcast proceeding, the Proposed Decision offered a condition (specifically #17) which would have restricted Comcast from implementing either data caps or mandatory usage based pricing (DC/UBP) for a period of five years. However, as Commissioner Florio’s Alternate Proposed Decision noted, that condition would have been insufficient to effectively mitigate the underlying potential harm due to the condition’s temporary nature.

Many mitigation conditions in the Comcast PD had no sunset clauses at all, such as Conditions 11 and 12 expanding the Internet Essentials program. Just as a sunset for the expansion of IE would have been unreasonable, so the sunset clause for the prohibition on DC/UBP was inadequate. Additionally, it would have run afoul of the Commission’s mandate under § 854(c)(7).

The behaviour of companies in this industry in general, and Charter’s past behaviour specifically, makes it clear that the CPUC should not take a risk on Charter’s less-than-compelling offer of a mere three year delay of the institution of data caps and usage-based pricing.

Beyond this particular issue, we believe that there is overwhelming evidence that this merger clearly would not be in the best interest of Californians, and that the CPUC should deny the transfer of licenses. However, should the CPUC for some reason allow the transfer to take place, we’d strongly request that the CPUC tailor the mitigation condition concerning data caps and usage-based pricing as this paper has suggested. Only a mitigation condition designed in this way would truly protect Californians, yet also be fair to New Charter by allowing the condition to sunset when the competition that Charter’s experts have testified is so important actually comes into existence.

Part 2 — Additional Reasons This Transaction is Not in the Public Interest

Time Warner Cable’s Superior Recent Upgrade Performance

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers in this state want and need. We argue that that operator is Time Warner Cable, not Charter Communications.

Since the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, Time Warner Cable has responsibly invested in their infrastructure without assuming an irresponsible amount of debt. Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus reported significant progress in their first quarter 2015 report to shareholders and customers, despite the distraction of the Comcast merger[73]:

Over the past 16 months, we’ve made significant investments to improve our customers’ experience:

  • Investing more than $5.2 billion to, among other things, improve the reliability of our network and upgrade customer premise equipment – including set-top boxes and cable modems – with the latest technologies and expand its network to additional residences, commercial buildings and cell towers;
  • Launching TWC Maxx, which features greater reliability, all-digital video, advanced TV services, standard tier of Internet speeds at 50 Mbps, and higher tiers of service up to 300 Mbps. New York, Los Angeles and Austin are complete; Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway; Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii are slated for later this year; and San Diego is expected to be done in early 2016;
  • Introducing Enhanced DVR, a six-tuner set-top box that allows customers to record up to six shows simultaneously and store up to 150 hours of HD content;
  • Increasing the number of Cable Wi-Fi hotspots available to our customers to 400,000;
  • Rolling out our cloud-based video guide to 8 million set-top boxes to date. The guide also makes it easier to browse our On Demand library, which now sits at 30,000 free and paid titles and continues to grow;
  • Expanding our industry-leading TWC TV app – which allows customers to watch live TV and On Demand content and control and program their DVR from inside and outside the home. TWC TV is now available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets, Android and IOS phones and tablets, Fan TV, PCs, Samsung TV and Roku;

Serving customers on their schedules rather than ours. We expanded one-hour appointment windows across the company and in Q1 met that window 97 percent of the time. We continue to add nighttime and weekend appointments.

Since that report, Time Warner Cable has announced new Maxx service upgrade areas – Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C. At least 45 percent of Time Warner Cable’s national footprint was serviced with Maxx upgrades by the end of 2015, and Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[74]

Marcus has indicated repeatedly he intends to see Maxx service upgrades extend even further. On the January 29, 2015 quarterly results conference call with investors, Marcus indicated Maxx upgrades delivered tangible benefits to the company, including increased customer satisfaction, higher network reliability, and a stronger product line. Based on those factors, it would be logical to assume Time Warner Cable would continue its upgrade project, and indeed Marcus confirmed this in his remarks:

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

At the rate Time Warner Cable has been rolling out Maxx upgrades, which were first announced on 30 January 2014[76], with 45% of its service area upgraded within 23 months, it is likely the company would complete its Maxx upgrade to all of its service areas within the next 24-30 months. Note that in Los Angeles these speed increases came with no corresponding price increase. In evaluating this transaction in New York, the NYDPS staff noted, “there is no indication that Petitioner’s plan for converting to all-digital in New York is any different from Time Warner’s existing plan.” The CPUC should examine this issue as well.

Charter, on the other hand, is saddled with debt servicing costs and more expensive credit, both of which are deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance, not to mention also placing upward pressure on the prices New Charter will charge consumers. Charter is a much smaller cable operator than Time Warner Cable, and is itself still in the process of repairing and upgrading its own cable systems and those it acquired in earlier acquisition deals. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, is in a much stronger financial position to carry out its commitments associated with the Maxx upgrade program.

Charter’s upgrade proposal is, in fact, both technically and generally inferior to what Time Warner Cable is accomplishing on its own. We strongly recommend the Commission carefully consider whether Charter’s proposal is as truly compelling as it claims.

Charter Communications’ Network Upgrade Proposal Is Not a Good Deal for California

Time Warner Cable Maxx offers 50/5 Mbps speeds under its most popular Standard plan. In contrast, Charter proposes to offer 60/5Mbps service under its most-popular Spectrum plan for a markedly higher price. The extra expense over the TWC 50Mbps plan does not justify a mere 10Mbps speed increase. (Currently in Los Angeles, TWC offers 200Mbps for $65/mo… roughly the same price as Charter’s 60/5 plan. TWC’s plan is over three times as fast as Charter’s for nearly the same amount). But perhaps more concerning, this 10Mbps increase comes at a high cost to customers looking for more budget-priced service than those seeking faster speeds.

Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet service – a very important offer for low income residents and senior citizens who are unable to afford the nearly $60 regular price Charter charges for their 60Mbps tier, or those who have no interest in streaming media.

Time Warner Cable offers its $14.99 tier without preconditions, restricted qualifiers, contracts, or limits on what types of services can be bundled with it. Any consumer qualifies for the service and can bundle it with Time Warner Cable telephone service for an additional $10 a month, which offers a nationwide local calling area, as well as free calls to the European Union, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and several Asian nations.

The loss of a $25 plan that includes basic Internet access and a bundled, 911-capable telephone line would be devastating to low-income Californians and senior citizens. During the Comcast-Time Warner Cable hearings, no topic elicited as much interest as Internet affordability. Time Warner Cable clearly offers a larger, superior product line for less money at ALL speed levels in California. Charter would bring Californians fewer options at more expensive prices.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income Californians is the adoption of Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, which offers restricted access to $9.95/month Internet service for those who qualify.

Stop the Cap! investigated Bright House Networks’ existing offer in a report to our readers[77] in June 2015, and we urge the Commission to look much more closely at the specific conditions Bright House customers have had to endure to qualify to subscribe:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you aren’t eligible until you pay it in full.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

5) Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880.

Families fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year. So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.

It has been our experience covering service providers across all 50 states that most design these low-cost Internet access programs with revenue protection first in mind. Charter Communications is no different. As with Comcast, Connect2Compete is only available to families with school age children. Applicants face an intrusive, complicated, and time-restricted enrollment process designed to dampen and discourage enrollment.

The interest in meeting the needs of low-income customers would be laudable if not for the insistence that otherwise-qualified existing customers cannot downgrade their regular price broadband plan to Connect2Compete unless they voluntarily go without Internet service for three months.

We strongly recommend Charter Communications be compelled to continue Time Warner’s $14.99 Internet plan, but at speeds no less than 25Mbps, the minimum definition of entry-level “broadband” by the FCC. We also recommend Charter be required to further discount this plan to $9.95 a month for qualified customers who meet a simple income test the Commission can define and establish. These discount programs should not just be available to families with school-age children. Everyone needs affordable Internet access, whether you are single and looking for your first job or a fixed income senior citizen.

All restrictions for existing customers or those with an outstanding balance must be prohibited and sign-ups must be accepted 365 days a year with re-qualification occurring not more than once annually.

Charter’s broadband offers for lower-income Californians are simply not adequate.

Charter Communications’ Cable Pricing Is More Expensive and Less Flexible than Time Warner Cable’s Pricing

Charter’s commitment to improve cable television does not offer any significant benefit to cable TV subscribers. Both Time Warner Cable and Charter propose to move to all-digital cable television to free up bandwidth to offer improved broadband.

While consumers clamor for smaller, less-costly cable television packages, Charter Communications’ CEO Thomas Rutledge is credited for inventing the “triple play” concept of convincing customers to package more services – broadband, television and telephone — together in return for a discount. Reuters cited his penchant for “simplified pricing,”[78] which is why Charter offers most customers only two options for broadband service and one giant television package dubbed Spectrum TV containing more than 200 channels.[79]

Unfortunately, any benefits from an all-digital television package are likely to be dismissed when customers get the bill. Currently, many Time Warner Cable customers watch analog television channels on television sets around the home without the need to rent a costly set top box. Any transition to digital television will require the rental of a set top box or purchase of a third-party device to view cable television programming. These can represent costly add-ons for an already high cable bill.

With approximately 99 percent of customers renting their set-top box directly from their pay-tv provider, the set-top box rental market may be worth more than $19.5 billion per year, with the average American household spending more than $231 per year on set-top box rental fees. These are some of the findings from Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) query of the top-ten pay-tv multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).[80]

Passed by Congress in December, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 repealed the set-top box integration ban, which enabled consumers to access technology that allowed use of a set-top box other than one leased from their cable company. Without the integration ban, by the end of this year, cable companies will no longer be required to make their services compatible with outside set-top boxes, like TiVo for example, bought directly by consumers in the retail marketplace.

American cable subscribers spend, on average, $89.16 a year renting a single set-top box. The average set-top box rental fee for each company was used to calculate an overall set-top box rental cost average across companies: $7.43 a month, or $89.16 per year. Considering many homes rent a DVR box to make and view recordings and maintain less-capable boxes on other televisions, the total cost adds up quickly. The average household spends $231.82 a year on set-top box rental fees, according to Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Charter proposes to introduce a new generation of set top boxes but as far as we know, has not disclosed the monthly cost of these IP-capable boxes to subscribers. We anticipate they will cost more than the current equipment provided by Time Warner Cable, which has also been increasing the cost of its set top box rentals. However, Time Warner allows customers to effectively purchase their set top boxes in the form of the Roku device, giving consumers the ability to completely eliminate the set top box rental fee is they so wish.[81]

Other Points the Commission Should Consider in Reviewing This Transaction

  • California must receive ‘most favored state’ status, meaning that whatever conditions other state commissions get from Charter must automatically apply to all Californians as well.
  • The Commission must insist that rural California is treated equally to the Los Angeles market. If this transaction is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across all of its service areas in California, to be completed within 30 months. Nothing less than that should be acceptable to the Commission. We agree with the New York DPS staff’s recommendation that Charter also be compelled to upgrade facilities to support gigabit broadband, and that should apply to California as well.This upgrade does not pose a significant challenge to any cable operator. With the upcoming introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, cable operators even smaller than Charter will support 1Gbps broadband speeds as they drop analog television signals. Suddenlink[82], MidContinent[83], Cox[84], and Mediacom[85] already have gigabit deployment plans in the works. If Fargo, N.D. is getting gigabit broadband from MidContinent Communications in the near future, Charter should have no problem offering similar service to customers in the likes of Carlsbad, Hesperia, Jurupa Valley, and beyond.
  • The Commission must establish and enforce meaningful enforcement mechanisms should Charter fail to achieve its commitments as part of this transaction. Cable consolidation has never significantly benefited consumers. Charter is not guaranteeing Time Warner Cable customers will receive a lower bill as a result of this merger. Nor is it committing to pass along the lower prices it will achieve through negotiations for video programming volume discounts. Cable rates, especially for broadband, will continue to increase. Without meaningful competition, there is no incentive to give consumers a better deal or better service.

Again, we feel Commissioner Florio’s Alternate PD in the Comcast matter applies equally well here and that the application should be denied. If the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, however, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful and ongoing. Any failure of New Charter to deliver on those commitments must include a direct benefit to customers, not just to the state government. If fines are imposed, customers should receive a cash rebate or equivalent service credit.
Conclusion

Cable operators know that once they secure a franchise or become the incumbent provider, no other cable company will negotiate with city officials to take over that franchise if the current provider’s application is denied during renewal. Once Charter (or any other cable company) establishes a presence, there is little to no chance that a community will be able to get rid of that provider if it fails to perform. That is why any franchise transfer that comes from an acquisition or merger must be treated with the utmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision that this Commission makes for the next 20 years or more.

As the Commission must realize, this transaction does not involve just entertainment. Several months ago the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility:”[86]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to the report from the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council. “Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities.”

Our group strongly believes that California should not take a risk on Charter’s less-than-compelling offer when Time Warner Cable has demonstrated it is in a better financial position and has a proven track record of delivering on its commitments to improve service with its Maxx upgrade project. Time Warner Cable has superior options for low-income Californians, offers more broadband options and faster speeds, and has committed to providing unlimited Internet access – a critical prerequisite for consumers choosing to drop cable television’s one-size-fits-all bloated video packages.

[1] Comcast XFinity website: http://goo.gl/OlWFu3

[2] For instance: “Internet traffic is growing fast — but capacity is keeping pace” Telegeography. 3 September 2008. https://goo.gl/OFBPHX; and Bode, Karl. “The ‘Bandwidth Hog’ is a Myth” DLSreports. 30 November 2011. https://goo.gl/lv6jE5

[3] DSLreports.com (https://goo.gl/0sZasc)

[4] Brodkin, Jon. “Comcast VP: 300GB data cap is ‘business policy’ not ‘technical necessity’ Ars Technica.  14 August 2015. http://goo.gl/1lAFwJ

[5] Morran, Chris. “Leaked Comcast Doc Admits: Data Caps Have Nothing To Do With Congestion” Consumerist. 6 November 2015. http://goo.gl/Uq9o5c

[6] TWC 2014 Q3 Earnings Call. http://goo.gl/Oz9hnL

[7] U.S. Government Accountability Office. “FCC Should Track the Application of Fixed Internet Usage-Based Pricing and Help Improve Consumer Education. November 2014. http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-108

[8] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Pages 75-77.

[9] Brodkin, Jon.  “Sling CEO: Comcast data caps so low they hurt competing video providers” Ars Technica. 7 December 2015. http://goo.gl/w98cqJ

[10] Pew Research Center “Home Broadband 2015” report. Page 19, as cited in NHMC reply testimony.

[11] Brodkin, Jon. “Watch out for data caps: Video hungry cord-cutters use 328GB a month” Ars Technica. 14 May 2014.  http://goo.gl/0O8vtR

[12] Arbel, Tali. “How Comcast wants to meter the internet” Associated Press. 27 October 2015. http://goo.gl/tnc66p

[13] Horn, Leslie. “You can burn through your entire broadband data cap in one long weekend” Gizmodo. 18 February 2014. http://goo.gl/Z0yQfY; and also Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn, 15 January 2016, page 114.

[14] Frankel, Daniel. “Survey: 56% of pay-tv customers would ditch ESPN in order to save $8 every month.” FierceCable. 13 Jan 2016. http://goo.gl/CQRCpp

[15] Heisler, Yoni. “How much money does cutting the cord really save?” BGR.  12 November 2015. https://goo.gl/tmiQL2; also Jones, Stacy. “Cost of cable TV vs internet streaming” Bankrate. 24 November 2014. http://goo.gl/tGJqK5

[16] Brodkin, Jon. “Comcast launches streaming TV service that doesn’t count against data caps” Ars Technica. 19 November 2015. http://goo.gl/ITJusN

[17] Finley, Klint. “Comcast may have found a major net neutrality loophole” Wired. 20 November 2015. http://goo.gl/zyFJku

[18] 2 November 2015 Statement of Dr. Scott Morton, Parts 132-133, pages 48-49.

[19] Brodkin, Jon. “House Republicans urge court to throw out net neutrality rules” Ars Technica.

11 November 2015. http://goo.gl/TBV56e

[20] Fung, Brian. “Republicans are trying to defund net neutrality. Will it work?” Washington Post. 24 July 2015.  https://goo.gl/Shk99e

[21] Ravenscraft, Eric. “Sponsored Data Is The Newest, Biggest Threat to Net Neutrality” Lifehacker. 20 January 2016. http://goo.gl/SXtl9C

[22] GAO “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108) page 26. http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/667164.pdf

[23] Dampier, Phillip. “Wall Street: Usage Caps Are an Important Weapon in Fight Over Cord-Cutting.” Stop the Cap!  18 January 2016. http://goo.gl/FKhsFO

[24] GAO “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108) page 26.

[25] CPUC A.14-04-013, A14-06-012 Alternate Proposed Decision, pages 71-72.

[26] Marshini Chetty, Richard Banks, A.J. Bernheim Brush, Jonathan Donner, and Rebecca E. Grinter. “‘You’re Capped!’ Understanding the Effects of Bandwidth Caps on Broadband Use in the Home.” ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. May 2012.

[27] Haynie, Devon. “Why Online Education May Drive Down the Cost of Your Degree” US News and World Report.  3 June 2014.  http://goo.gl/HSH1Pp

[28] Kehl, Danielle and Lucey, Patrick. “Artificial Scarcity: How Data Caps Harm Consumers and Innovation”  Open Technology Institute. 30 June 2015. https://goo.gl/zt5Jj9

[29] Yao, Deborah. “Time Warner Cable shelves some Internet cap plans” ABC News. 18 April 2009.  http://goo.gl/YynOiM

[30] Simmermon, Jeff. “Launching An Optional Usage-Based Broadband Pricing Plan In Southern Texas” TWC “Untangled” Blog. 27 February 2012.  http://goo.gl/PoS5nR

[31] Dampier, Phillip. “Time Warner Cable Recommits: No Mandatory Usage Caps As Long As Company Remains Independent” Stop the Cap! 30 October 2014.  http://goo.gl/6vxXNx

[32] Dampier, Phillip. “Time Warner Cable Admits Usage-Based Pricing is a Big Failure; Only Thousands Enrolled” Stop the Cap! 13 March 2014. http://goo.gl/lCqp4k

[33] Q2 2015 Time Warner Cable Results-Earnings Call. 30 June 2015. http://goo.gl/JINiwn

[34] Q3 2015 Time Warner Cable Earnings Call. 29 October 2015. https://goo.gl/piDDDc

[35] Media Alliance Reply Testimony to Joint Applicants Opening Testimony, pages 2-3. 15 January 2015.

[36] “Redacted Comments of the New York State Department of Public Service Staff” September 16, 2015. Page 39. http://goo.gl/C1Xpph

[37] Opening Testimony of Charles Fisher, page 6.

[38] Id at 7-8.

[39] “Statement of Dr. Fiona Scott Morton re the Merger of Charter, TWC, and BHN” 2 November 2015. Page 48. http://goo.gl/eEtY5Z

[40] Higginbotham, Stacey. “Want to know if your ISP is capping data? Check our updated chart.” GigaOm. 15 November 2013. https://goo.gl/owGq96

[41] DSL Reports: https://goo.gl/1RXjgm

[42] DSL Reports: https://goo.gl/aoFvuT

[43] “Charter Residential Internet Acceptable Use Policy.” https://goo.gl/8ICMe1

[44] Testimony of Laura Blum Smith, 15 January 2016. Page 14.

[45] Eggerton, John. “FCC Seeks Data Dump from Charter, TWC, Brighthouse” Multichannel News. 23 September 2015.  http://goo.gl/nJEazB

[46] Dampier, Phillip. “Charter and Time Warner Cable Try Internet-Only TV Service to Combat Cord-Cutting, Cord-Nevers” Stop the Cap! 26 October 2015.  http://goo.gl/doimuR

[47] Opening Testimony of Charles Fisher, page 4.

[48] Shields, Todd. “Cable Magnate Malone’s Stakes Scrutinized in Charter-TWC Deal” Bloomberg News. 9 November 2015. http://goo.gl/s6VTMw

[49] Kang, Cecilia and Fung, Brian. “The Darth Vader of Telecom is Back” Washington Post. 26 May 2016.  https://goo.gl/qWS480

[50] Lasar, Matthew. “Sirius/XM merger approved with new conditions” Ars Technica. 28 July 2008. http://goo.gl/LO4aaQ

[51] Lieberman, David. “Sirius XM CEO Mel Karmazin Vows Big Vows Big Consumer Price Hike (If the FCC Allows It)” Deadline Hollywood. 3 May 2011.  https://goo.gl/tTYZE3

[52] Cox, Kate. “Poll Sponsored By Charter Says Charter Is Great, More Charter is Greater” Consumerist. 20 January 2016. http://goo.gl/Xp0wsJ

[53] Opening Testimony of Adam Falk, page 2.

[54] Charter currently charges just under $65/mo for its 60Mbps tier of standalone internet with wireless gateway (outside of promotions). In Los Angeles, though, Time Warner Cable offers for that exact same amount 200Mbps also with a wireless gateway. Time Warner provides over three times the speed Charter does for the same price. That certainly is a countervailing harm to consumers.

[55] Unlike Time Warner, Charter bakes its modem fee into the internet plan. So every single customer is paying that modem fee… even if they own their own modem (like many Time Warner customers do). Not only is that not a “customer friendly billing practice,” but it’s another countervailing harm as well. Later on page 18 of his opening statement, Mr. Falk says “New Charter will bring base speed tiers from 15 Mbps to Charter’s current standard of 60 Mbps at uniform pricing within a year of closing.” Those unfortunate consumers get to take a double hit: not only will Charter be increasing the price of the comparable tier, but they will be taking away even the option to have a cheaper tier should the customer want it. It’s a massive price hike with fewer options available. That certainly doesn’t sound like the “customer friendly billing practices” Mr. Falk is touting, nor does it make his claim that consumers will face no harms from this merger ring particularly true.

[56] On page 3 of his opening statement, Mr. Falk claims that New Charter will face “other forms of competition (e.g., wireless providers).” But as described above, Dr. Scott Morton admits that wireless providers are actually NOT competition for New Charter’s internet offerings.

[57] Also on page 3, Mr. Falk states that “New Charter will face significant competition from wireline competitors (e.g., AT&T and Frontier).” But in reality, the areas where AT&T and/or Frontier (or even Verizon) actually overlap New Charter territory is extremely limited. And at any rate, this proposed mitigation condition would sunset where that overlap is present.

[58] Mr. Falk’s states: “Charter offers its base 60 Mbps service at lower prices than other providers for comparable service, without modem fees…” This simply isn’t true. Currently, Time Warner offers a 50 Mbps off contract for $45/mo. That’s comparable and significantly less expensive than Charter. TWC also offers 100Mbps at $55/mo… still less than Charter’s price for the slower 60Mbps. Mr. Falk’s statement is simply false.

[59] Testimony of Marc Puckett on behalf of Intervenor Town of Apple Valley, page 2. 15 January 2015.

[60] CPUC ALJ Ruling A.15-07-009 page 2.

[61] Testimony of Martyn Roetter on behalf of the County of Monterey. 15 January 2015. Page 1.

[62] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Page 116.

[63] Statement of Dr. Scott Morton. 2 November 2015. Page 51, footnote 187.

[64] USGAO. “Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Committee on Energy and Commerce, House of Representatives” (GAO-15-108). November 2014. Page 11. http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/667164.pdf

[65] Id. at 23.

[66] Reply Testimony of Lee L. Selwyn. 15 January 2016. Page 132.

[67] Id pages 24-25.

[68] Brodkin, Jon. “Complaint Factory: Angry Internet subscribers tee off against Comcast, Verizon, AT&T.” Ars Technica. 29 December 2015.  http://goo.gl/484NYO

[69] Dampier, Phillip. “Comcast Customers Buy $35 Usage Cap Insurance, Report ‘Unlimited’ is Slower Than Ever.” Stop the Cap! 28 December 2015.  http://goo.gl/SMfsOg

[70] Id.

[71] Id.

[72] CPUC A.14-04-013, A14-06-012 Alternate Proposed Decision, page 77.

[73] TWC Untangled Blog. 30 April 2015. http://goo.gl/6gp3er

[74] TWC Untangled Blog. 14 July 2015. http://goo.gl/eWZEGl

[75] TWC Q4 2014 Earnings Call Transcript on Seeking Alpha. http://goo.gl/c8QZtR

[76] TWC Untangled Blog. 14 July 2015. http://goo.gl/jafclZ

[77] Dampier, Phillip. “Bright House’s Mysterious Internet Discount Program Charter Wants to Adopt Nationwide” 25 June 2015. http://goo.gl/DVlwpF

[78] Baker, Liana. “Analysis: Charter’s bid for Time Warner Cable hinges on Rutledge’s skill. Reuters. http://goo.gl/QndjSd

[79] Charter Channel Lineup. https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup

[80] Senator Ed Markey Press Release. 30 July 2015. http://goo.gl/PNy2b0

[81] Mlot, Stephanie. “Replace your Time Warner Cable Box with a Roku” PC Magazine. 10 November 2015. http://goo.gl/GkSbu7

[82] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Suddenlink Boots Up 1-Gig Broadband” Multichannel News. 9 July 2015. http://goo.gl/U2SK4X

[83] Midco Press Release. 17 November 2014. https://goo.gl/pKmChH

[84] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Cox Plots DOCSIS 3.1 Plans” Multichannel News. 22 September 2015. http://goo.gl/LDIFsR

[85] Baumgartner, Jeff. “Mediacom Sets Residential 1-Gig Rollout” Multichannel News. 9 September 2015. http://goo.gl/MGFQ02

[86] Trujillo, Mario. “Obama administration declares broadband ‘core utility’ in report” The Hill. 21 September 2015. http://goo.gl/5vazOL

Guest Editorial: Media Mergers, Diversity, and Broken Promises

Martinez

Martínez

Companies like to pretend that mergers are about more than consolidating power and increasing profits. To push massive mergers through, they make a whole host of promises and spend a whole lot of money spinning stories that makes it sound like their deals will be in the public interest — ­and in the best interests of marginalized communities.

But this is rarely, if ever, the case.

Broadband and cable providers in particular have tried to appeal to communities of color by promising to increase diversity in programming. These companies also vow to make broadband more affordable for low-income households.

The most recent example of this dynamic is Charter Communications.

Charter, which is trying to take over Time Warner Cable, just signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with several prominent civil rights groups. In the MOU, Charter pledges to, among other things, “expand programming targeting diverse audiences.”

On paper, such commitments may appear to benefit communities of color. But as a report from Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race shows, there’s good reason to be skeptical about whether Charter will follow through.

“The Latino Disconnect: The Impact of Media Mergers on Latino Consumers and Representation” found there was “no significant increase in diversity behind the camera after the 2011 Comcast-NBCUniversal merger, despite a pledge to increase Latino representation in programming.”

charter twc bhThe study examines media mergers that have taken place since 2008 but takes a deeper look at the Comcast deal and focuses specifically on Latin@ representation. The research shows that while Latin@ representation went up slightly in front of the camera following the merger, representation actually declined behind the camera. And overall, “the agreements and promises made before the merger weren’t really panning out.”

And despite the pledges from companies like Charter to make broadband more affordable, a recent Pew study found that broadband adoption rates for Black and Latin@ households have dropped significantly over the past two years due to the high cost of broadband.

Unfortunately, the promises these companies make to civil rights organizations and the communities these groups represent are unenforceable. Meanwhile, communities of color would suffer most from the Charter merger, which would lead to higher prices for cable and broadband.

Many groups have come out against the takeover for this very reason. The National Hispanic Media Coalition recently filed testimony with the California Public Utilities Commission opposing the merger. NHMC President Alex Nogales noted that “a merger of this size and scope would grant an unacceptable concentration of power over the cost and quality of broadband connections and access to diverse programming … this merger would be a bad deal for Latinos and California.”

Meanwhile, Presente.org, the nation’s largest Latin@ online advocacy organization, also opposes the merger, stating it would hit the Latin@ community and other underserved populations hard with steeper prices and poorer service.

Companies like Charter and Comcast make promises around diversity to win support for their mergers because they know how important issues of access and representation are to communities of color. They also know there are no real ways for us to hold them accountable.

All communities of color deserve the opportunity to tell their own stories, find adequate representation on every channel and have access to affordable broadband services. But history has shown us that companies like Charter will exploit the marginalization of our communities to get what they want. And as the Columbia study has found, these merger-related promises often go unfulfilled.

Join Free Press in urging the FCC to stop the Charter-Time Warner Cable merger.

Lucia Martínez is an organizer for Free Press’ campaign initiatives.

Editor’s Note: In the Spanish language most (not all) nouns are assigned gender—masculine or feminine. To promote gender equality/gender neutrality, many prefer to use the term “Latin@,” which refers to both men (latino) and women (latina). (The “@” symbol encompasses both the “a” and the “o.”)

Non-Profit Group Attacks Charter-TWC Deal Critics, Forgets to Mention It Takes TWC Money

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

More than a dozen industry-supported non-profit groups turned out in force at last evening’s public hearing in Los Angeles run by the California Public Utilities Commission to ask the regulator to approve the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable.

But one deal supporter also used the occasion to attack consumer advocacy groups lined up to oppose the deal, without apparently mentioning the fact her group Smart Education counts Time Warner Cable as a major sponsor of the organization.

Liberty Naud told the audience the merger would help California improve its math and science scores and help educate the next generation of entertainment industry employees.

“Last year, the United States was ranked 27th in math, and 28th in science among 34 developed countries,” said Naud, whose group serves the Coachella Valley. “By 2018, we are going to be short 3 million science, technology, engineering and math jobs. How many of our at-risk youth could fill those spots if they had the access that they needed?”

The Los Angeles Times reports Naud took a jab at the consumer advocacy groups and a representative of the Writers Guild of America, West, who opposed the deal.

“Who brings those stories you write to life? Who does the editing and creates the equipment that makes it possible to film those ideas?” Naud said. “Technologists, engineers and sound scientists.  We don’t just need this merger, it is a necessity.”

Stop the Cap! believes you don’t need a math degree to calculate conflict-of-interest. It has been our experience that what often motivates non-profit groups to appear at an obscure hearing in support of a multi-billion dollar cable merger is money. Those financial relationships should always be disclosed at public hearings and in media reports to give the public important context.

It will also come as no surprise we believe Naud’s argument in nonsensical. Should this merger not be approved, Charter and Time Warner Cable will continue to offer service in their respective areas. Charter is proposing new Internet programs for the income-challenged and Time Warner Cable already offers a $14.99 Internet plan open to anyone. Both cable companies set their own policies about rural access, pricing, and discounts to at-risk communities. A merger is not necessary to provoke change.

Germany Getting 400/20Mbps Unlimited Cable Broadband Starting at $40/Month

Phillip Dampier January 27, 2016 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Liberty/UPC No Comments

unitymediaWhile Comcast, Cox, Suddenlink, and a handful of other cable companies play games with usage caps and expensive broadband, Germany is getting some massive broadband speed improvements with no data caps, speed throttling, or rate increases.

Unitymedia, owned by Liberty Global (related to Liberty Broadband, Charter’s largest single investor), is giving Germans a broadband upgrade you wish you had. Starting Feb. 1, 3.2 million cable homes in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia  will see their broadband speeds double to 400/20Mbps at prices starting at just $40 a month, which includes a flat-rate landline with unlimited free calls across the German landline network, and a free combination wireless/Wi-Fi router and cable modem.

200 germany

Unitymedia’s current offer is for 200/10Mbps. Starting Feb. 1, those speeds will double.

Unitymedia, which also serves customers in the German states of Hesse and Baden-Württemberg, will still be using DOCSIS 3.0 technology for the speed upgrade. DOCSIS 3.1 is expected to bring even faster speeds and better service beginning later in 2016. The company also offers subscribers access to more than 1,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots across all three states, helping give DSL service serious competition.

While U.S. cable operators have dragged their feet on upgrades while raising broadband prices, Unitymedia CEO Lutz Schüler said his company would make the necessary investments to drive network upgrades forward without delay. Schüler may not have much choice. Telephone company Internet providers have benefited from increased speeds of up to 100Mbps that come from deployment of vectoring technology, which can dramatically boost DSL speeds.

The investment also intends to send a message to the telecommunications marketplace that hybrid fiber-coaxial cable systems can deliver dramatically faster and affordable broadband speeds than they often do today, all without usage caps or usage billing.

AT&T Gets Stingy With DirecTV Promotions for Existing Customers; $100+ for TV-Only Service

directvDirecTV under AT&T’s ownership is turning out to be no bargain for customers finding it increasingly tough getting a promotional rate package with the satellite provider.

Fred Johnson has been a DirecTV customer in rural Iowa for almost six years and has had to call DirecTV every time his on-contract promotion nears an end. Off-contract customers generally do not receive the best promotions and DirecTV’s regular prices can make the average cable company blush.

“It is not unusual for DirecTV customers to get quoted rates of $80 a month for satellite television and then receive a bill for over $100 once the surcharges, rental fees, taxes, and other hidden fees are added to your bill,” Johnson tells Stop the Cap! “There are months when the bill can go up even higher with no explanation, and even the customer service department cannot explain all the mysterious charges.”

At the end of the usual two-year contract, it has become customary for many long time DirecTV customers to call and threaten to cancel if they cannot get a renewed promotional rate, and for years DirecTV had been happy to oblige.

In 2015, AT&T bought the satellite provider and is in the process of integrating it as part of the AT&T family of services, next to U-verse, AT&T Mobility, and traditional landline service. That is the year the discounts seemed to evaporate for customers like Johnson and Evelyn Wiedmer, who subscribes to DirecTV for the family’s recreational vehicle.

Recreational vehicle owners are among the most loyal to satellite television.

Recreational vehicle owners are among the most loyal to satellite television.

“We were just told our bill was going to increase $45 a month starting in February and there is little we can do about it,” Wiedmer tells us. “The call center lady mentioned that the new owner of DirecTV is going in a different direction with promotions and we no longer qualify for any specials, unless we also want to get an AT&T cell phone.”

Wiedmer and her husband are retired and travel the country in their RV and do not have room in the budget to pay AT&T an extra $540 a year for the same package of channels they used to get for about $65 a month.

“They apparently do not want us to be customers anymore because DISH Networks will sell us a comparable package for about $60 a month, which is much less than the $105 DirecTV is charging us starting next month,” Wiedmer writes. “It looks like DirecTV won’t be competing with AT&T U-verse and the cable company anymore at their prices.”

Critics charge that is exactly the point. Adam Levine-Weinberg called the AT&T-DirecTV merger “one more step towards oligopoly,” warning approval of the merger would remove a serious competitor for tens of millions of customers also served by AT&T U-verse.

“That means there [were] tens of millions of people who [had] a choice between AT&T and DirecTV (as well as the local cable company and satellite TV rival DISH Networks,” said Levine-Weinberg. “The merger [reduced] many consumers’ pay-TV options from four to three, giving the remaining companies more pricing power.”

AT&T is flexing that pricing power by pulling back on promotions and discounts. In addition to curtailing retention plans and promotions for existing customers, AT&T also announced rate increases for DirecTV that take effect tomorrow:

The monthly pre-tax price of DirecTV’s “Select” and “Entertainment” programming tiers will go up by $2, to $51.99 and $61.99, respectively. The “Choice” and “Xtra” bundles will increase $4 to $74.99 and $81.99, respectively; the “Ultimate” pack will go up $5 a month to $91.99; and the “Premier” bundle will grow by $8 to $144.99. That is well over $150 a month after taxes and fees are added, just to watch television. AT&T is also applying a 50 cent increase to a fee DirecTV charges for… selling television service. The so-called “TV Fee” will now cost $7.00 a month.

(Courtesy: zidanetribal17)

(Courtesy: zidanetribal17)

“You used to switch to satellite to save money, but now cable companies offer returning customers lower prices than what DirecTV will offer,” notes Johnson. “It’s almost like they want to drive customers away. It worked. Our neighbors are now collecting money to convince Mediacom to extend their cable down our rural street and after these price increases we finally have enough willing to contribute to switch to cable television and remove the satellite dishes from our rooftops.”

Wiedmer has also canceled her DirecTV service this week, switching to DISH Networks.

“Would you sign another two-year contract agreeing to pay $540 more a year for two years with nothing in return for the extra money?” Wiedmer asks. “AT&T and DirecTV can take a hike.”

California Public Hearing on Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger is Tonight; Stop the Cap! Will Be There

cpucCalifornians will have their chance to speak out about the proposed merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable at a public hearing in Los Angeles tonight before an administrative law judge working for the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC).

California will be the last major state capable of killing the transaction should the CPUC reject the merger on the grounds of it not being in the public interest. New York regulators approved the merger, but only with a lengthy list of conditions designed to improve service for New York residents.

Stop the Cap! will be represented at the hearing tonight by Matt Friedman, who will help us improve our vigilance of cable and phone companies serving the west coast. Friedman has done an incredible job exposing the sham of usage caps and compulsory usage-based pricing in his written testimony, which will be published here after being filed with the CPUC. As with most CPUC public hearings, we expect speakers will only be given a few minutes at most to state their views on the merger. As we did in New York, Stop the Cap! will oppose it on the grounds it is not in the public interest.

charter twcWe remain suspicious about Charter’s commitment to not impose usage caps or usage pricing for only three years. Most consumers will not see much of a change in the broadband marketplace over the next few years. Charter can afford to wait 36 short months before potentially slapping on usage caps/billing — after winning additional regulatory approval to buy out even more companies. While the CEO of Time Warner Cable will walk away with over $100 million in golden parachute benefits if he successfully sells Time Warner Cable, we anticipate most customers will win a higher bill.

Friedman will share our ongoing concerns that Charter’s offer is less impressive than Time Warner Cable’s own Maxx upgrade initiative, which will deliver 300Mbps service for the price Time Warner Cable customers currently pay for 50Mbps. Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 budget Internet service is also on Charter’s chopping block, to be replaced with an entry-level tier offering 60Mbps for about $60 a month — four times more expensive. In short, the only honest reason to allow this deal to succeed is if we want to further enrich Time Warner Cable executives and shareholders while customers take all the risks of higher bills, worse service, and usage caps starting in 2019, with few if any other options.

Also planning to attend are Common Cause, Free Press, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition, which all argue allowing this deal to succeed sets up America for a national virtual duopoly between Comcast and Charter, with just two companies controlling the majority of broadband connections in the United States.

The CPUC could reject the merger outright or approve it, usually with conditions. While we remain opposed to the merger, should the CPUC ultimately make a different decision, we are advocating:

  • A ban on compulsory usage caps or usage pricing. An affordable, unlimited option broadband tier should always be available, at prices comparable to what consumers pay today for Internet service.
  • Charter should be forced to commit to upgrading its entire service area in California to an equal level of service offered by Time Warner Cable Maxx.
  • Charter should be required to keep Time Warner Cable’s affordable, no-contract/no-requirement $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet plan and boost its speed.
  • Most-favored state status for California, automatically giving California consumers the benefits won from conditions imposed by regulators in other states.
  • …and other consumer-targeted service improvements.

If you are in Los Angeles and want to attend or possibly share your own views with the CPUC, the hearing is open to the public:

Location: Junipero Serra State Office Building – Auditorium (Carmel Room)  — 320 West 4th Street, Los Angeles
Time: The meeting starts at 6:00pm

West Virginia Lawmakers Battle Slow Broadband; Propose to Fine ISPs for False Speed Claims

frontier speedFrontier Communications is the obvious target of an effort by members of West Virginia’s House of Delegates to embarrass the company into providing at least 10Mbps broadband service or face steep penalties if it does not stop advertising slow speed DSL as “High-Speed Internet.”

State lawmakers continue to be flooded with complaints about the poor performance of Frontier Communications’ DSL service, which customers claim delivers slow speeds, unreliable service, or no service at all.

Although Frontier frequently advertises broadband speeds of 10Mbps or faster, customers often do not receive the advertised speeds, and the service can be so slow it will not work reliably with online video services.

West Virginia’s broadband problems remain so pervasive, the state legislature this year will entertain several broadband improvement measures, including a proposal to spend $72 million to build a publicly owned middle mile fiber optic network. The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Chris Walters (R-Putnam) claims the new fiber network would boost Internet speeds, improve service, and force down broadband pricing.

With cable broadband available only in major communities, much of West Virginia is dependent on DSL service from Frontier Communications, the telephone company serving most of the state. That is a unique situation for Frontier, which typically serves smaller and medium-sized cities in-between other communities serviced by larger providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Qwest/CenturyLink. Frontier’s problems meeting customer expectations have been well heard in Charleston, the state capitol, if only because most members of the state legislature have Frontier customers in their districts.

Legislators have found they have little recourse over a business that operates largely without regulation or government oversight, as Delegate John Shott (R-Mercer) told the Charleston Gazette. Shott heads the House Judiciary Committee and gets plenty of complaints from his constituents.

“[Customers] feel they never get the speed the Internet providers represent,” said Shott. “There doesn’t seem to be any recourse or regulatory body that has any ability to cause that to change.”

In the absence of regulation or direct oversight, a class action lawsuit on behalf of Frontier DSL customers in the state is still working its way through court. In December 2015, a separate action by West Virginia Attorney General Pat Morrisey resulted in a settlement agreement with Frontier. The company agreed to guarantee at least 6Mbps speeds for around 28,000 customers, or give them a substantial monthly discount off their broadband bill.

frontier wvShott’s bill, HB 2551, targets “unfair or deceptive acts or practices” of Internet Service Providers that advertise fast speeds but never deliver them. The bill would expose a violating ISP to damages up to $3,000 per customer, a $5,000 state fine, and allow customers to walk away from any outstanding balance or contract:

It is an unfair or deceptive act or practice and a violation of this article for any seller or Internet service provider to advertise or offer to provide “high speed Internet service” that is not at least ten megabytes per second.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, the consumer has a cause of action to recover actual damages and, in addition, a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $100 nor more than $3,000. No action brought pursuant to this subsection may be brought more than two years after the date upon which the violation occurred or the due date of the last scheduled payment of the agreement, whichever is later.

If a seller or Internet service provider violates […] this section, any sale or contract for service is void and the consumer is not obligated to pay either the amount due, the amount paid or any late payment charge. If the consumer has paid any part of a bill or invoice, or of a late payment fee, he or she has a right to recover the payments from the violator or from any [collection agency] who undertakes direct collection of payments or enforcement of rights arising from the alleged debt.

The Attorney General of this state shall investigate all complaints alleging violations […] and has a right to recover from the violator a penalty in an amount, to be determined by the court, of not less than $500 nor more than $5,000 per violation, with each advertisement or contract to sell or provide “high speed Internet” being a separate violation. The Attorney General also has the power to seek injunctive relief.

As of today, the bill counts Delegates J. Nelson, Border, Kessinger, Arvon, Moffatt, A. Evans, Wagner, Cadle, and D. Evans as sponsors.

Delegate Shott

Delegate Shott

“The list of sponsors of this bill [HB 2551] are from a broad geographic area,” Shott told the newspaper. “They’ve identified this as a problem in their areas.”

Some legislators believe West Virginia should enforce the FCC’s latest minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps, but the Gazette reports that kind of robust speed definition could be difficult for a DSL provider to achieve without significant additional investment. Some worry companies like Frontier could have difficulty justifying further rural broadband expansion in a state traditionally challenged by its number of rural areas and difficult terrain.

Despite those difficulties, incumbent providers like Frontier, Suddenlink, and Comcast have not appreciated efforts to help expand public broadband networks in the state, including the proposal outlined in Sen. Chris Walters’ SB 315, which would authorize about $72 million to build a public middle mile fiber network that would be offered to ISPs at wholesale rates.

Frontier strongly objects to the project because it would use public dollars to compete with private businesses like Frontier. The phone company’s opposition raised eyebrows among some in Charleston, who note Frontier had no objections to accepting $42 million in state dollars in 2010 to construct and install a fiber network it now operates for hundreds of public facilities across the state and $283 million in federal dollars to expand rural broadband. The 2010 fiber project was rife with accusations of waste, fraud, and abuse. Critics allege Frontier overcharged the state, installing service for $57,800 per mile despite other providers routinely charging about $30,000 a mile in West Virginia.

The West Virginia Cable Television Association, representing cable operators in the state, called the project a money-waster, noting it would not result in a single new hookup for broadband service. Middle mile networks do not reach individual homes and businesses and the bill does not authorize the state to get into the ISP business.

Sen. Walters

Sen. Walters

Much of the support for the public network comes from smaller ISPs like Citynet, which predominately serves commercial customers, and equipment vendors like Alpha Technologies. Walters believes if West Virginia builds the network, broadband providers will come to use it. The state’s dominant cable and phone companies vehemently disagree. The cable association has launched an all-out PR war, hoping to attract opposition from conservative lawmakers with claims the project will mandate state and local governments to buy Internet connectivity exclusively from the state-owned network and would trample on corporate rights by using eminent domain to seize parts of the cable industry’s fiber networks to complete the state network.

Walters brushed away the accusations, telling the Gazette there is no mandate that state agencies use the network and there are no plans for the government to take any fiber away from a private company.

Cable operators prefer an alternative measure also introduced in the West Virginia Senate. SB 16 would grant tax credits of up to $500 per address for any phone or cable company that agrees to wire a previously unserved rural address. The bill would limit total tax credits to $1 million.

The difference between the two measures? Walters’ bill would use public money to build a public broadband network owned by the public and answerable to the state. The cable industry-backed proposal would use public money in the form of tax offsets to wire homes and businesses to broadband owned by private businesses answerable to shareholders.

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  • Jonny: My smaller cable company Suddenlink (1.4M customers) started the same thing. 250GB cap with with their medium speed of 50mbps. They are only doing thi...
  • Joe V: Man these guys just don't get it. Not to worry, just as the music industry learned the hard way that to piss off their customers by giving them crap, ...
  • Mike D.: The TV providers have never been willing to fight for the consumer with the other conglomerates who bundled crap with one or two channels of good cont...
  • Sean Colbert: The comcast cap isnt even bad compared to mine. I have Hughesnet Gen4 (All I can get in my area) and I have a 20gb a month limit with an extra 50 in b...
  • zychor: 59Mbps down, 5.9Mbps up ..it doesn't matter internet is so slow...

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