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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus

Marcus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comcast Displays Prominent “Data Usage Plan May Apply” Disclaimers On Its Website’s Sales Offers

Comcast has added a prominent warning to the Internet sales pitches on their website:

“An XFINITY Internet Data Usage Plan may apply,” appears when visitors click the “Learn More” button under each Internet offer.

comcast internet overcharging

In the past, Comcast notified affected customers on a regional level based on the locations where usage billing trials are underway. Now the disclaimer is prominently visible for every Comcast customer nationwide.

For now, these trials still apply only to XFINITY Internet customers in Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Tucson, Arizona; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville, Nashville and Memphis, Tennessee; and Charleston, South Carolina.

In all trial markets except Tucson, the usage allowance included with all XFINITY Internet tiers is 300GB per month. The overlimit fee is $10 for each 50GB used above the usage cap.

In the Tucson, Arizona market, the usage allowance included with Economy Plus through Performance Internet tiers is 300GB. Those customers subscribed to the Blast! Internet tier have received an increase in their data usage plan to 350GB; Extreme 50 customers have received an increase to 450GB; Extreme 105 customers have received an increase to 600GB. The overlimit fee remains the same — $10 for each block of 50GB used above your allowance.

Midwestern Cities Worry About Comcast’s Replacement: Already Debt-Laden GreatLand Connections

The merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable includes castoffs that will be served by a completely unknown spinoff - GreatLand Communications, that nobody can speak with and does not have a website.

The merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable includes castoffs that will be served by a completely unknown spinoff – GreatLand Connections, that nobody can speak with and does not have a website.

At least 2.5 million Comcast customers in cities like Detroit and Minneapolis could soon find their service switched to a new provider that doesn’t have a website, doesn’t answer questions, and won’t give detailed information to municipal officials about its plans, pricing, or service obligations.

GreatLand Connections is the dumping ground for communities Comcast no longer wants to serve, including cities in Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

Formerly known as “SpinCo” for the benefit of Wall Street investment banks advising Comcast, the new cable company has been created primarily to help Comcast convince regulators to approve its merger with Time Warner Cable. Comcast believes supersizing itself with Time Warner Cable will win a pass with the FCC by self-limiting its potential television market share. The deal is also structured to dump a large amount of debt on the brand new cable company, allowing Comcast to avoid a significant tax bill.

GreatLand will, for all intents and purposes, be Charter Cable under a different name. Charter will act as the “management company,” which means it will be in charge of most consumer-facing operations.

Beyond that, almost nothing is known about the new cable company, except that it will open its doors laden with $7.8 billion in debt, according to a securities filing. That is equal to five times EBITDA, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. In comparison, Comcast is 1.99 times EBITDA and Time Warner Cable is 3.07 times EBITDA, making the new cable company highly leveraged above industry averages. Charter Cable, which declared bankruptcy in 2009, is loaded down it debt itself, as it continues to acquire other cable operators.

Finances for the new company appear to be “less-than-middling,” according to MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett, in a note to investors.

Because cable operators face little serious competition, the chances of any significant cable company liquidating in bankruptcy is close to zero, but a heavily indebted company may be very conservative about spending money on employees and operations. It may also leverage its market position and raise prices to demonstrate it can repay those obligations.

exitWith many customers having only one choice for High Speed Internet access above 15-25Mbps — the cable company — the arrival of GreatLand concerns many municipalities facing deadlines to approve a transfer of franchise agreements from Comcast to the new entity.

Jodie Miller, executive director of the Northern Dakota County Cable Communications Commission in suburban Minneapolis said it was impossible to find anyone to talk to at GreatLand. The commission needs to sign off on franchise transfers by mid-December, but nobody can reach GreatLand and the company has no track record of service anywhere in the country.

“We’re not even saying it’s unqualified,” she told Businessweek. “We’re saying we don’t really have information.”

Coon Rapids, Minn. has put franchise renewal negotiations on hold. Michael Bradley, a municipal cable TV attorney and the city’s longtime cable counsel said the deadline has been extended from Oct. 15 to Dec. 15.

“It’s a challenge,” he said. “No one knows who we can deal with locally. Nothing is certain yet and discussions are on hold.”

“We don’t have the answers we need,” added Ron Styka, an elected trustee with responsibility for cable-service oversight in Meridian Township, Michigan, a town served by Comcast about 80 miles west of Detroit.

“Answers have been inadequate at best and mostly not forthcoming,” echoed David Osberg, city administrator of Eagan, Minn. in a filing to the Federal Communications Commission.”It’s not clear whether GreatLand will be financially qualified.”

Eagan has had problems with Comcast in the past, and does not want new ones with GreatLand, especially with broadband service, which is vital to an effort to attract technology jobs to the community.

NY’s Broadband Future Is Better With Time Warner Cable: Comcast’s Coming Usage Caps Kill Innovation

Phillip Dampier August 11, 2014 Broadband "Shortage", Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Editorial & Site News, Internet Overcharging, Net Neutrality, Online Video, Public Policy & Gov't, Time Warner Cable Comments Off on NY’s Broadband Future Is Better With Time Warner Cable: Comcast’s Coming Usage Caps Kill Innovation

psctest

Broadband will be critically impacted by any merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable in New York. The two companies could not be more different in their philosophies regarding access, pricing, and speeds.

say noThis merger will have an especially profound impact on broadband service in upstate New York, largely left behind out from getting Verizon’s fiber upgrades. New York’s digital economy critically needs modern, fast, and affordable Internet access to succeed. Verizon has not only ceased expansion of its FiOS fiber to the home network in New York, it has virtually capitulated competing for cable customers in non-FiOS areas by agreeing to sell Time Warner Cable service in its wireless stores.[1]  In cities like Rochester, served by Frontier Communications’ DSL, Time Warner Cable is the only provider in town that can consistently deliver broadband speeds in excess of 10Mbps.

Time Warner Cable has never been the fastest Internet provider and had a history of being slower than others to roll out speed increases. But it is also the only cable provider in the country that experimented with usage caps and consumption billing and shelved both after subscribers bitterly complained in market tests in cities including Rochester.[2]

Then CEO Glenn Britt announced the end of the usage cap trial just two weeks after it became public.[3] Britt would later emphasize that he now believed there should always be an unlimited use plan available for Time Warner Cable customers who do not want their Internet use metered.[4] In study after study, the overwhelming majority of customers have shown intense dislike of limitations on their Internet usage, whether from strict usage caps Comcast maintained for several years or usage allowances that, when exceeded, would result in overlimit fees.[5] Just this month, the Government Accounting Office confirmed these findings in a new study that reported near-universal revulsion for usage caps on home wired broadband service:[6]

In only two groups did any participants report experience with wireline UBP [usage-based pricing].

However, in all eight groups, participants expressed strong negative reactions to UBP, including concerns about:

  • The importance of the Internet in their lives and the potential effects of data allowances.
  • Having to worry about data usage at home, where they are used to having unlimited access.
  • Concerns that ISPs would use UBP as a way of increasing the amount they charge for Internet service.

Time Warner Cable has learned an important lesson regarding consumer perception of usage-based billing and usage caps on Internet service. In 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps for customers interested in a discount on their broadband service. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced in enroll such programs.[7]

Despite results like that, Comcast has not learned that lesson and has twice imposed unilateral, compulsory usage limits on their broadband customers, starting with a nationwide hard usage cap of 250GB per month introduced in 2008. Violators risked having their broadband service terminated by Comcast.[8] Today, for some that would be comparable to losing electricity or telephone service. The threat has profound implications in areas where Comcast is the only broadband provider.

Comcast temporarily rescinded its cap in May 2012, but has gradually reintroduced various forms of usage-related billing and caps with market trials in several Comcast service areas[9]:

Nashville, Tennessee: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Tucson, Arizona: Economy Plus through Performance XFINITY Internet tiers: 300 GB. Blast! Internet tier: 350 GB; Extreme 50 customers: 450 GB; Extreme 105: 600 GB. $10 per 50GB overlimit fee;

Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB; XFINITY Internet Economy Plus customers can choose to enroll in the Flexible-Data Option to receive a $5.00 credit on their monthly bill and reduce their data usage plan from 300 GB to 5 GB. If customers choose this option and use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, they will not receive the $5.00 credit and will be charged an additional $1.00 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible-Data Option;

Fresno, California, Economy Plus customers also have the option of enrolling in the Flexible-Data Option.

courtesy-noticeComcast customers in these areas do not have the option of keeping their unlimited-use broadband accounts. Despite the fact Comcast executive vice president David Cohen refers to these as “data thresholds,” they are in fact de facto limits that carry penalty fees when exceeded.[10]

Cohen predicts these usage limits will be imposed on all Comcast customers nationwide within the next five years.[11] Time Warner Cable has committed not to impose compulsory limits on its broadband customers. Verizon has never attempted to place limits on its home broadband customers. Frontier shelved a usage limit plan of 5GB per month attempted in 2008 and currently provides unlimited service.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts sat for an interview with CNBC in June in which he implied usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business, justifying usage caps. At the end of the interview, Time Warner Cable ran advertising emphasizing it has no usage caps.[12] Both companies have highly profitable broadband services, as do other providers across the country.[13]

As our group has found, usage caps and consumption billing on cable Internet and DSL are little more than a transparent rate increase and anti-competitive maneuver to restrict the growth of the industry’s biggest potential competitor: online video. If a consumer can stream all of their video programming over a broadband account, there is no reason to retain a cable TV package. Comcast’s usage cap provides a built-in deterrent for customers contemplating such a move.

While a Comcast representative offered (without any independent verification) that the average Comcast broadband user consumes fewer than 20GB of data per month, Sandvine released evidence in its Global Internet Phenomena Report 1H2014 study that cord-cutters in the U.S. – at least those whose usage indicates the use of streaming as a primary form of entertainment – now consume about 212GB of data per month (with 153GB of that going toward “real-time entertainment usage”).[14]

That would put many customers perilously close to Comcast’s current market tested usage allowance.

Approving the transfer of franchises from Time Warner Cable to Comcast has the potential of saddling the majority of New York residents with usage caps and/or consumption billing with little or no savings or benefit to the consumer while introducing a major impediment to potential online video competition to help curtail cable television pricing.

[1]http://www.verizonwireless.com/wcms/consumer/home-services/tv-internet-homephone/twc.html
[2]http://www.reuters.com/article/2009/04/16/us-timewarnercable-idUSTRE53F6EQ20090416
[3]http://stopthecap.com/2009/04/16/we-won-time-warner-killing-usage-caps-in-all-markets/
[4]http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2012/02/launching-an-optional-usage-based-pricing-plan-in-southern-texas-2/
[5]http://www.dailytech.com/Microsoft+Study+Bandwidth+Caps+Change+Internet+Users+Behavior/article24639.htm
[6]http://eshoo.house.gov/uploads/7.29.14%20Preliminary%20GAO%20Report%20Findings%20from%20Data%20Cap%20Study.pdf
[7]http://stopthecap.com/2014/03/13/time-warner-cable-admits-usage-based-pricing-is-a-big-failure-only-thousands-enrolled/
[8]http://arstechnica.com/uncategorized/2008/08/its-official-comcast-starts-250gb-bandwidth-caps-october-1/
[9] http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials-what-are-the-different-plans-launching
[10] http://customer.comcast.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials-what-are-the-different-plans-launching
[11]http://techcrunch.com/2014/05/14/comcast-wants-to-put-data-caps-on-all-customers-within-5-years/
[12]http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/nocaps.png
[13]http://gigaom.com/2014/02/12/comcast-and-time-warner-cable-forget-tv-it-is-all-about-broadband/
[14]http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/cord-cutters-gobble-down-bits-sandvine-study/374551#sthash.JYFP7o69.dpuf

			
			

Stop the Cap!’s Testimony Before the N.Y. Public Service Commission on Comcast-TWC Merger

lousy-tshirt-640x640For the benefit of new visitors, text items in bold are clickable links. A complete video from this event will be posted as soon as possible.

Good evening. My name is Phillip Dampier from Stop the Cap!, a Rochester-based all-volunteer consumer group fighting for better broadband service and against Internet usage caps.

This is a critical moment for New York. The Internet has become a necessity for most of us and the future is largely in the hands of one company capable of delivering 21st century broadband to the majority of upstate New York. That company isn’t Verizon, which has ended FiOS fiber expansion while abandoning most of its upstate customers with slow speed DSL. Indeed, as their market share will attest, our broadband future is held in the hands of Time Warner Cable.

Comcast could have become a big player in New York had it chosen to compete head to head with Time Warner. But large cable operators avoid that kind of competition, preferring comfortable fiefdoms that only change hands at the whim of the companies involved. As local officials from across New York have already discovered, no major cable operator will compete for an expiring franchise currently held by another major cable operator.

Ironically, Comcast is using that fact in its favor, noting that since neither company competes directly with the other, making Comcast larger has no impact on competition. But that should hardly be the only test.

At issue is whether this merger is in the public interest. This year, for the first time in a long time, the rules have changed in New York. In the past, the Commission had to prove the merger was not in the best interests of New Yorkers. Now the onus is on Comcast to prove it is. It has fallen far short of meeting that burden.

Let’s start with Comcast’s dysfunctional relationship with its customers. With more than 75 citizen comments filed with the Commission so far. Comcast’s reputation clearly precedes it. The consensus view is perhaps best represented by one exasperated Clinton-area resident who wrote, I quote, “No. No no no. HELL no.

dream onThat kind of reaction is unsurprising considering Consumer Reports ranked Comcast 15th out of 17 large cable companies and called their Internet service and customer relations mediocre. Every year since 2007, Comcast’s CEO acknowledges the problems with customer service and promises to do better. Seven years later, the American Customer Satisfaction Index reports absolutely no measurable improvement. In fact, ACSI has concluded Comcast had the worst customer satisfaction rating of any company or government agency in the country, including the IRS.

In order to sell this $45 billion boondoggle to a skeptical public, Comcast has hired 76 lobbyists from 24 different firms and will reportedly spend millions trying to convince regulators and our elected leaders this deal is good for New York. If the deal gets done, Comcast’s biggest spending spree won’t be on behalf of its customers. Instead, Comcast has announced a $17 billion share buyback to benefit their shareholders. Imagine if this money was instead spent on improving customer service and selling a better product at a lower price.

don't careThe only suitable response to this merger deal is its outright rejection. Some may recommend imposing a handful of temporary conditions in return for approval – like the kind Sen. Al Franken accused Comcast of reneging on after its earlier merger with NBCUniversal. But this is one of those cases where you just can’t fit a round peg into a square deal for consumers, no matter how hard you try.

With respect to television, volume discounts have a huge impact on cable programming costs and competition. The biggest players get the best discounts, smaller ones are stunned by programming rate hikes and new competitors think twice about getting into the business.

AT&T said last week its 5.7 million customer U-verse television service was too small to get the kind of discounts its cable and satellite competitors receive. AT&T’s solution is to buy DirecTV, which might be good for AT&T but is bad for competition.

Frontier Communications has also felt the volume discount sting after adopting several Verizon FiOS franchises. When it lost Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier began a relentless marketing effort to convince its customers to abandon FiOS TV and switch to technically inferior satellite TV.

Combining Comcast and Time Warner Cable will indeed help Comcast secure better deals from major programmers (including Comcast itself). But Comcast is already on record warning those savings won’t be shared with customers.

Comcast’s executive vice president David Cohen summed it up best: “We are certainly not promising that customer bills will go down or increase less rapidly.”

Is that in the public interest?

xfinity_blowsComcast suggests this merger will make its cable television market share no larger than it had in 2002 when it bought the assets of AT&T Cable. But this is 2014 and cable television is increasingly no longer the industry’s biggest breadwinner. Broadband is, and post-merger Comcast will control 40-50 percent of the Internet access market nationwide.

So what do Time Warner Cable customers get if Comcast takes over? A higher bill and worse service.

Several months before Comcast sought this merger, Time Warner announced a series of major upgrades under an initiative called TWC Maxx. Over the next two years, Time Warner Cable plans to more than triple the Internet speeds customers get now at no additional charge. Those upgrades are already available in parts of New York City, Los Angeles, and Austin.

A Time Warner Cable customer in Queens used to pay $57.99 for 15 megabit broadband. As of last month, for the same price, they get 50 megabits.

In contrast, Comcast’s Internet Plus plan delivers just 25 megabits and costs $69.95 a month – nearly $12 more for half the speed. Who has the better broadband at a better price? Time Warner Cable.

New York State’s digital economy depends on Internet innovation, which means some customers need faster speeds than others. Time Warner Cable’s Maxx initiative already delivers far superior speeds than what Comcast offers, despite claims from Comcast this merger would deliver New York a broadband upgrade.

isp blockTime Warner’s new top of the line Internet service, Ultimate 300 (formerly Ultimate 50), delivers 300 megabit service for $74.99 a month. Comcast’s top cable broadband offer listed on their website is Extreme 105, offering 105 megabit speeds at prices ranging from $99.95 to $114.95.

Is the public interest better served with 300 megabits for $74.99 from Time Warner Cable or paying almost $40 more for one-third of that speed from Comcast? Again, Time Warner Cable has the better deal for customers.

But the charges keep coming.

At least 90 percent of cable customers lease their cable modem from the cable company, and Comcast charges one of the highest lease rates in the industry – $8 a month. Time Warner Cable charges just under $6.

So I ask again, is this merger really in the public interest when broadband customers will be expected to pay more for less service?

Then there is the issue of usage caps, a creative way to put a toll on innovation. Usage caps make high bandwidth applications of the future untenable while also protecting cable television revenue.

If the PSC approves this transaction, the vast majority of New York will live under Comcast’s returning usage cap regime. There is simply no justification for usage limits on residential broadband service, particularly from a company as profitable as Comcast. Verizon FiOS does not have caps. Neither does Cablevision. But the majority of upstate New Yorkers won’t have the option of choosing either.

In 2009, Time Warner Cable lived through a two week public relations nightmare when they attempted an experiment with compulsory usage caps on customers in Rochester. After Stop the Cap! pushed back, then CEO Glenn Britt shelved the idea. Britt would later emphasize he now believed Time Warner should always have an unlimited use tier available for customers who want it.

Whether intended or not, Time Warner actually proved that was the right idea. In early 2012, the company introduced optional usage caps in return for discounts. They quickly discovered customers have no interest in having their Internet usage measured and limited, even for a discount. Out of 11 million Time Warner Cable broadband customers, only a few thousand have been convinced to enroll.

comcast sucksComcast doesn’t give customers a choice. In 2008, a strict 250GB usage cap was imposed on all residential customers with disconnect threats for violators. Since announcing it would re-evaluate that cap in May 2012, it now appears Comcast has settled on a new residential 300GB usage allowance gradually being reintroduced in Comcast service areas starting in southern U.S. markets.

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen cutely calls them “usage thresholds.” At Stop the Cap! we call it Internet Overcharging.

Cohen predicts Comcast will have broadband usage thresholds imposed on every city they serve within five years. Whether you call it a cap or a threshold, it is in fact a limit on how much Internet service you can consume without risking overlimit fees of $10 for each 50GB increment over your allowance.

Unlike Time Warner Cable, Comcast isn’t offering a discount with its usage cap, so those who use less will still pay the same they always have, proving again that usage caps don’t save customers money. (See below for clarification)

At the end of May I watched CNBC interview Comcast CEO Brian Roberts who implied during a discussion about Comcast’s usage caps that usage growth was impinging on the viability of its broadband business. Moments later, Time Warner Cable ran an ad emphasizing its broadband service has no usage caps. Both companies are making plenty of money from broadband.

This merger is bad news for customers faced with Comcast’s legendary bad service, its forthcoming usage caps, or the higher prices it charges. Even promised innovations like their much touted X1 set top platform comes with a gotcha Comcast routinely forgets to mention. Customers have to pay a $99 installation fee.

Stop the Cap! will submit a more comprehensive filing with the PSC outlining all of our objections to this merger, and there are several more. We invite anyone in the audience to visit stopthecap.com for this and other matters related to cable television and broadband. We appreciate being invited to share our views with the Commission and hope to bring a consumer perspective to this important development in our shared telecommunications future. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/TWC News Hearing on Comcast 6-16-14.mp4

Time Warner Cable News covered the Public Service Commission hearing in Buffalo, which included testimony from Stop the Cap!’s Phillip Dampier. Also appearing was a representative from the National Black Chamber of Commerce advocating that telecom companies merge as fast as possible. The Chamber has received significant support from Comcast for several years now and representatives routinely testify in favor of Comcast’s business initiatives. (2:30)

Clarification: Comcast has different trials in different cities:

Nashville, Tennessee: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Tucson, Arizona: Economy Plus through Performance XFINITY Internet tiers: 300 GB. Blast! Internet tier: 350 GB; Extreme 50 customers: 450 GB; Extreme 105: 600 GB. $10/50GB overlimit fee;

Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee and Charleston, South Carolina: 300 GB per month with $10/50GB; XFINITY Internet Economy Plus customers can choose to enroll in the Flexible-Data Option to receive a $5.00 credit on their monthly bill and reduce their data usage plan from 300 GB to 5 GB. If customers choose this option and use more than 5 GB of data in any given month, they will not receive the $5.00 credit and will be charged an additional $1.00 for each gigabyte of data used over the 5 GB included in the Flexible-Data Option;

Fresno, California, Economy Plus customers also have the option of enrolling in the Flexible-Data Option.

Comcast suggested customers can enroll in a cheaper usage plan in some of these markets. Yes they can, but only if they downgrade to Economy Plus service which offers speeds only up to 3Mbps. Their $5 discount is not available on any other plan.

GOPHarmony: Three Leading Republicans Announce Support for Comcast-TWC Merger

Paul

Paul

Three important Republican lawmakers have announced their support of Comcast’s $45 billion acquisition of Time Warner Cable, claiming the combined entity will not affect competition in the cable or broadband market.

Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, and Rep. Blake Farenthold of Texas told Newsmax TV’s Steve Malzberg the cable merger does not seem to be a monopoly.

“One of the good things about the Internet … is there’s such of diversity of opinion and so many places to get opinion that all the old-fashioned rules on merger and acquisitions in media really have become outdated,” Paul said. “[There are] so many places to look for a viewpoint … [so] I’m just not much on having the government get involved. Most of the time the government gets involved because another competitor doesn’t like it and that competitor is usually an enormous competitor…. So for the most part, I would let [these] mergers occur.”

Graham

Graham

South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham agreed with Paul. Despite the fact South Carolina is now dominated by Comcast and Time Warner Cable, turning the two companies into one does not pose any problem for Graham.

“There’s no competition between Time Warner and Comcast in a cable market, so you’re not creating a monopoly,” Graham said. “There’s competition with satellite, with phone companies, with all kind of things.”

Farenthold expressed concern about “left-leaning” Comcast, owner of NBC and MSNBC, getting larger but cannot oppose the merger on those grounds alone.

Farenthold

Farenthold

“You can’t not approve a merger because you don’t like the companies’ politics. That’s just not right,” Farenthold told Newsmax. “The issue is, is it going to create a monopoly? Well, Time Warner and Comcast don’t compete in any markets or maybe very few markets.”

Two of the lawmakers received contributions from Comcast’s political action committee:

  • Graham: $13,500
  • Farenthold: $2,000

Comcast, Charter Divide Up Time Warner Cable Customers – Find Out Who Will Serve You

Phillip Dampier April 29, 2014 Charter, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Time Warner Cable, Video Comments Off on Comcast, Charter Divide Up Time Warner Cable Customers – Find Out Who Will Serve You

comcast twcIf you are a Time Warner Cable customer, one of four things will happen by this time next year:

  1. You will still be a Time Warner Cable customer if regulators shoot down its merger with Comcast;
  2. You will be a Comcast customer;
  3. You will be a Charter Communications customer;
  4. You will be served by a brand new cable company temporarily dubbed “SpinCo,” owned partly by Comcast but managed by Charter.

Comcast and Charter this week reached an agreement on how to handle the 3.9 million Time Warner Cable customers Comcast intends to spin-off to keep its total subscriber numbers at a level they believe will appease regulators. The transaction will affect Time Warner customers in the midwest the most, particularly former Insight Cable customers.

divest

Charter Communications will say goodbye to customers in California, New England, northern Georgia, Texas, North Carolina, Oregon, Washington, Virginia and parts of Tennessee. Most of those customers will now be served by Comcast. Among the regions affected: New York, Boston, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Northern/Southern California, and Atlanta.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WISN Milwaukee First Comcast Now Charter 4-28-14.flv

WISN in Milwaukee reports Time Warner Cable customers there were just getting used to the idea of Comcast and they are not happy service will be provided by Charter Communications instead. (2:03)

Comcast and Time Warner Cable will in turn give up many of its cable systems in the midwest, either transferring them to Charter or the “SpinCo” venture managed by Charter.

twc charterCharter will take over directly in Ohio, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Indiana and Alabama.

If you are a Comcast or Time Warner Cable customer next to a current Charter service area in Michigan, Minnesota, Indiana, Alabama, Eastern Tennessee, Kentucky or Wisconsin, chances are you will end up a subscriber of the “SpinCo” venture. That will prove a distinction without much difference to customers, because Charter will manage the day-to-day operations of the new cable company and has the right to eventually acquire it outright.

With the exception of a small handful of systems in western sections of Pennsylvania, Virginia and North Carolina, all of New England, New York, and the mid-Atlantic region will be serviced by Comcast.

With the exception of Cablevision in eastern New York, Comcast will be the dominant cable provider across New York State from Manhattan to Buffalo.

With the exception of Cablevision in eastern New York, Comcast will be the dominant cable provider across New York State from Manhattan to Buffalo.

The agreement also includes a commitment by Charter to drop its opposition to the Time Warner Cable/Comcast merger.

“Today’s announcement from Comcast would, in essence, lead to the creation of a three-company cable cartel. Masquerading as subscriber divestitures, the agreement with Charter brings together the three largest cable providers, who account for 38% of cable subscribers and 45% of Internet subscribers,” the Writers Guild of America West said in a statement. “The decision of these three powerful companies to divide markets and share ownership of subscribers through a new publicly traded corporation is unprecedented and adds to the mounting evidence against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger.”

The transaction is expected to be tax-free and will happen in three stages:

  • Asset Sale: Charter acquires systems serving around 1.4 million former TWC customers for an estimated $7.3 billion in cash;
  • Asset Transfer: Charter and Comcast transfer assets in a tax-free exchange involving around 1.6 million former TWC customers and about 1.6 million Charter customers;
  • Asset Spin-off: Comcast will spin-off a new entity (“SpinCo”) composed of cable systems serving around 2.5 million Comcast customers to its shareholders, with Charter acquiring close to 33% of the equity of SpinCo in exchange for 13% of the equity of a new holding company of Charter.

Charter Communications would become the nation’s second largest cable operator if the deal is approved, owning outright systems with an estimated 5.7 million video customers and managing an extra 2.5 million SpinCo customers, together totaling more than 8.2 million video customers.

Comcast wanted the deal done quickly so it could begin lobbying Washington and other regulators with detailed divestiture plans to keep Comcast’s total subscribers to less than 30% of the national cable market.

Although Comcast will face tough competition in Time Warner Cable territories also served by Verizon FiOS, Charter and its managed SpinCo will compete primarily with AT&T U-verse. Just 1% of Charter’s territory is expected to see competition from Verizon’s fiber network.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Divesting Comcast Subs 4-28-14.flv

Comcast agreed to divest 3.9 million customers to Charter Communications, potentially helping to ease the approval process for its merger with Time Warner Cable. Media Morph Chairman and Chief Strategist Shahid Khan and Bloomberg’s Paul Sweeney speaks on Bloomberg Television’s “In The Loop.” (6:23)

Deregulation Allows Lifeline/USF Fraud to Run Rampant; Tens of Millions Fund Lavish Lifestyles

Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office released this mug shot of Leonard I. Solt, 49, of Land O’Lakes, one of three people accused of defrauding the federal Lifeline program out of more than $32 million.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office released this mug shot of Leonard I. Solt, 49, of Land O’Lakes, one of three people accused of defrauding the federal Lifeline program out of more than $32 million.

A lack of robust state oversight of independent contractors and resellers may have cost the Universal Service Fund and nationwide Lifeline program up to $1 billion in waste, fraud, and abuse.

This month, three men were accused of stealing more than $32 million in Universal Service Fund (USF) money that supported lavish lifestyles including the purchase of multiple luxury automobiles. The federal government wants the money back.

Leonard I. Solt, 49, of Land O’Lakes, Fla.,Thomas Biddix, 44, of Melbourne, Fla. and Kevin Brian Cox, 38, of Arlington, Tenn., all face federal criminal charges for allegedly padding the number of customers signed up for Lifeline phone service through five companies all connected to the men: American Dial Tone, Bellerud Communications, BLC Management, LifeConnex Telecom and Triarch Marketing.

In some cases, Lifeline cell phone service was completely subsidized by USF funding, allowing customers to sign up for free cell phone service. Average Americans cover the costs of the program through a surcharge on monthly phone bills.

The indictment charges the defendants with one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and 15 substantive counts of wire fraud, false claims and money laundering.

In an 18-month period from 2009 to 2011, the phone companies obtained more than $46 million through the Lifeline program.

Regulators have been suspicious of the companies and the men who ran them since at least 2010 when the Florida Public Service Commission noticed a dramatic spike in Lifeline reimbursement requests from Associated Telecommunications Management Services, LLC., the parent company of the five entities. The Florida PSC accused AMTS of misrepresenting customer enrollment when claiming reimbursement. It was not until June 2011 that the Florida PSC approved a settlement of $4 million from AMTS and an agreement to stop doing business in the state.

bellerudThe case illustrated several ostensibly-independent companies were created to market service across Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wisconsin. Many had ties back to AMTS management. Despite the Florida settlement, the firms continued to do business in multiple states. Many of the states involved have deregulated the telephone business and have cut staff at state agencies tasked with oversight issues.

By the time the federal government moved in to prosecute, the three men had used USF funds to buy a private jet, a 28-foot boat and six luxury cars, including an orange Lamborghini, a red-bronze Chevrolet Corvette, a black Cadillac Escalade, a Chevrolet Suburban limo, a black Mercedes Benz S63 and a blue Audi R8.

free planLast week, government agents seized the vehicles from Biddix’s Melbourne-based pawn shop, Outdoor Gun and Pawn.

The Wall Street Journal reported in 2013 that the FCC’s own data showed that more than 40% of the six million subscribers at five of the program’s top carriers were either ineligible or failed to show that they qualified for subsidized service. As more independent companies win authorization to start pitching Lifeline landline and mobile phone service to the poor, the cost of the program has skyrocketed to $2.2 billion last year, up from $819 million four years earlier.

The companies are reimbursed for providing service, providing an incentive to sign up as many as possible.

In Alaska, a GCI subsidiary, Alaska DigiTel hired a marketing company to help it sell Lifeline cell phone service. The company quickly began signing up patients in hospitals, using hospital addresses as their residence. It also encouraged applicants to list phony addresses. For four years, GCI profited from questionable  reimbursements filed with the FCC. GCI finally agreed to pay a $1.5 million settlement that includes no admission of liability.

Other providers simply used telephone directories to collect names and mailing addresses of “customers” and sent them unsolicited cell phones for which they requested reimbursement.

An Oklahoma provider that regulators suspect got exceptionally greedy allegedly signed up so many Oklahoma residents to Lifeline service, the state is likely to exhaust the supply of phone numbers remaining in the 405 area code sooner than expected.

Providers sometimes targeted customers disconnected for non-payment.

True Wireless received nearly $46 million under the program in 2012, bringing questions from Oklahoma’s Corporation Commission as to whether enrolling that many residents was mathematically possible. A cursory review found some customers had signed up multiple times in violation of federal rules.

In Wisconsin, the state Public Service Commission eventually revoked Midwestern Telecommunications Inc.’s ability to receive Lifeline funding after its overworked staff discovered MTI was mailing phones to customer that never requested them, billing the USF Fund for reimbursement. Some turned out to be children.

The scheme eventually began to unravel when a former Public Service Commission staffer received an unsolicited Lifeline phone. The alleged fraud was so great, MTI went from receiving 1% of Lifeline reimbursements in Wisconsin during the second quarter of 2010 to 33% of disbursements in the same quarter the following year.

The fraud also extends to Lifeline recipients, some who have bilked the program for free phones. A review of the Lifeline customer database revealed many customers had multiple Lifeline accounts, including some sent more than 10 free phones that were later reportedly resold on street corners.

Nationally, the $1.8 billion Lifeline Program subsidized phone service last year for 14.5 million low-income customers.

Customers are usually eligible if they are already enrolled in income-based programs such as Medicaid, food assistance or public housing, or if household income falls below 150 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WSJ Lifeline Fraud 2-18-13.flv

WSJ’s Spencer Ante has details of a $2.2 billion government program to give cell phones to poor people that resulted in phones winding up in the hands of people ineligible for the program. (1:13)

Google Fiber Threat Cited in Cincinnati Bell’s Decision to Sell Wireless Division to Verizon Wireless

Phillip Dampier April 8, 2014 Cincinnati Bell, Competition, Consumer News, Google Fiber & Wireless, Verizon, Video, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on Google Fiber Threat Cited in Cincinnati Bell’s Decision to Sell Wireless Division to Verizon Wireless

cincinnati bellCincinnati Bell threw in the towel on its wireless mobile business Monday when it decided to sell its wireless spectrum licenses, network, and 340,000 customers for $210 million to its larger rival Verizon Wireless.

While most analysts say the transaction is the inevitable outcome of a wireless industry now dedicated to consolidation, at least one analyst said the threat of Google Fiber eventually entering the Cincinnati market may have also contributed to the decision to sell.

The future of Cincinnati Bell’s wireless division had been questioned for more than a year, ever since the arrival of the company’s newest CEO Ted Torbeck in January 2013. Cincinnati Bell, one of the last independent holdouts of the Bell System breakup that have not been reabsorbed by AT&T or Verizon, had struggled since Torbeck’s predecessor made some bad bets on acquisitions, including an investment in microwave communications provider Broadwing that left the company with more than $2 billion in debt in 2004. Another $526 million acquisition of data center Cyrus One left the company further in debt.

Torbeck

Torbeck

Torbeck promised a frank evaluation of Cincinnati Bell’s operations last year and keeping its declining wireless division no longer made sense with Torbeck’s focus on replacing the company’s aging copper wire network with fiber optics.

For years, Cincinnati Bell’s biggest competitor has been Time Warner Cable, which has taken away many of its landline customers. Cincinnati Bell’s mobile phone division was created to protect its core business, picking up wireless subscribers as customers dropped their landlines. But the cable company’s bundled service packages made landline service much less expensive than sticking with the phone company, and many wireless customers prefer a national wireless phone company offering better coverage and a wider selection of devices.

Rampant wireless industry consolidation has concentrated most of the cell phone market in the hands of AT&T and Verizon Wireless, giving those two companies access to the most advanced and hottest devices while regional carriers made do offering customers less capable smartphones. Its competitors’ march towards 4G LTE network upgrades also challenged Cincinnati Bell with costly capital investments in a 4G HSPA+ network that Torbeck recently decided no longer made economic sense.

Cincinnati Bell’s wireless revenue for 2013 was $202 million, a decrease of 17 percent from 2012. The company also lost 58,000 subscribers last year, an unsustainable drop that showed few signs of stopping.

610px-Verizon-Wireless-Logo_svg“Our business has been in decline for five or six years,” Torbeck told the Cincinnati Business Courier. “This is absolutely the right time to make this deal. It was probably the highest value we could get at this point in time.”

Torbeck believes Cincinnati Bell’s best chance for a future lies with with fiber optics, capable of delivering phone service along with a robust broadband and television offering that can effectively compete with Time Warner Cable.

“We’ve got to grow market share in Cincinnati and fiber optics is the way to do it,” Torbeck said in 2013. “We have about 25 percent of the city covered and we think from a financial perspective we can get to 65 or 70 percent so we’ve got significant growth opportunity there.”

fiopticsLast year, Cincinnati Bell had passed 184,000 homes with fiber optics – a 28 percent market share. But only 52,000 homes subscribed to Fioptics — Cincinnati Bell’s fiber brand. Time Warner Cable had managed to keep many of its wavering 446,000 customers loyal to the cable company with aggressive discounting and customer retention offers. But now that many of those discounts have since expired, Torbeck wants to reach 650,000-700,000 homes in its service area covering southwestern Ohio and northern Kentucky and convince 50% of those customers to switch to fiber optics.

Torbeck isn’t interested in limiting his business to just greater Cincinnati either.

“At some point in time, we’d like to expand regionally into Indianapolis, Columbus,” Torbeck said. “Louisville is another opportunity. But that’s probably a little down the road. From a fiber standpoint, we could look at acquisitions and get into metro fiber. These are things we’re looking at, but these are things that are down the road. We got a lot of room for growth just here in Cincinnati.”

But financial analysts warned Cincinnati Bell’s enormous debt load limits the company’s potential to invest in expansion. Torbeck’s decision to sell off the company’s wireless unit is another step in reducing that debt and further investing in fiber optics expansion.

google fiberThe company’s unique position as the last remaining independent phone company that still bears the name of the telephone’s inventor may make the company a target for a takeover before Torbeck’s vision is realized. One analyst thinks Cincinnati Bell would be a natural target for Google, which has a recent record of repurposing fiber networks built by other companies as a cost-saving measure to further deploy Google Fiber.

“They are a small and cheap company with the infrastructure that Google could use,” said Brian Nichols. “My theory is that Google will buy undervalued companies like Cincy Bell to save on the mounting costs of buildouts, which could top $30 billion,“ Nichols wrote in an email to WCPO-TV.

Google did exactly that in Provo, Utah, acquiring struggling iProvo from the city government for $1 in return for agreeing to expand the fiber network to more homes.

Cincinnati’s local phone company would sell for considerably more than that, but it would still prove affordable for Google, which has a market value of $361 billion, about 470 times that of Cincinnati Bell.

cincCincinnati Bell has already spent about $300 million on Fioptics and plans to spend an extra $80 million this year on expansion. Before the network is complete, the phone company is likely to spend as much as $600 million on fiber upgrades. But the payoff has been higher revenue — $100 million last year alone, and a stabilizing business model that has reduced losses from landline cord-cutting. Telecom analyst Nicholas Puncer offers support for the investment, something rare for most Wall Street advisers.

“It’s a reasonable strategy,” Puncer said. “There’s only going to be more data going through networks in the future, not less. The way we consume content is going to be a lot different 10 years from now than it is today. This is their effort to be on the right side of that, giving people more options to receive that content.”

But if Google Fiber comes to town, it may not be enough.

“Google has an unprecedented luxury,” Nichols said in his email to WCPO. “They are [attaching] fiber to existing poles owned by AT&T (and other telecom companies), and then targeting areas where consumers agree for service before the network is even built. Given this demand, and its mere ability to operate in such a manner, I do think Cincinnati Bell will have major problems once that day comes (likely sooner rather than later). In fact, I don’t think they stand a chance of competing against Google.”

Cincinnati Bell said it will continue to offer wireless service for customers for the next 8 to 12 months. The company will notify customers with further details regarding transition assistance around the time of the closing, which is expected to be in the second half of 2014.

It was not immediately clear on Monday if the sale will impact jobs. Cincinnati Bell Wireless employs about 175 people, including retail store employees.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WKRC Cincinnati Cincinnati Bell selling wireless spectrum to Verizon 4-8-14.flv

WKRC in Cincinnati reports on what the sale of Cincinnati Bell Wireless to Verizon Wireless means for customers. (1:24)

Comcast Gobbledygook: “We Don’t Have Data Caps, We Have Data Thresholds”

The Plain English Campaign's Golden Bull Award is given to companies that prefer gobbledygook over plain English.

The Plain English Campaign’s Golden Bull Award is given to companies that prefer gobbledygook over plain English.

Comcast is outraged by slanderous suggestions it has data caps on its broadband service.

In response to the scathing report from the Writers Guild of America that pleads for the FCC to block the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Comcast has accused to WGA of getting its facts wrong and being nothing more than a meddling union.

The WGA writes in their filing with the FCC:

The WGAW has also joined Public Knowledge in asking the FCC to enforce the condition that Comcast not use “caps, tiers, metering, or other usage-based pricing” to treat affiliated network traffic differently from unaffiliated traffic. Comcast has violated this condition by exempting its online video service, Xfinity Streampix, from its own data caps, while the viewing of content by other, unaffiliated video services such as Netflix or YouTube would count against a user’s data cap. The violation of this merger condition is a clear threat to competition from online video distributors, and the FCC should respond by requiring Comcast to stop exempting its Streampix service from data caps.

Comcast pounced on the WGA filing, calling it inaccurate.

Comcast-Logo“We don’t have data caps — and haven’t for about two years,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, Comcast’s vice president of government communications. “We have tested data thresholds where very heavy customers can buy more if they want more — but that only affects a very small percentage of our customers in a few markets.”

Until 2012, Comcast had a uniform usage cap of 250GB a month, above which a customer risked having their broadband service suspended. In 2013, the usage allowances were back, reset at 300GB a month and rolled out to a series of expanding “test markets” that today include Huntsville and Mobile, Ala., Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Ga., Central Kentucky, Maine, Jackson, Miss., Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., and Charleston, S.C.

nonsenseCustomers who exceed this allowance won’t have their broadband service suspended, they will just get a higher bill, as Comcast charges $10 for each additional 50GB of usage.

In contrast, Time Warner Cable neither has a data cap or a data threshold. Stop the Cap! made sure that didn’t happen when Time Warner attempted to impose its own usage limits back in 2009. We successfully organized protests sufficient to get Time Warner executives to back off and shelve the idea. If Comcast takes over, Time Warner Cable customers will likely eventually face Comcast’s “data thresholds,” which are a distinction without much difference. Whatever you call it, it’s a limit on how much a customer can use Comcast’s already-expensive broadband service before bad things happen.

The WGA and Comcast get along about as well as oil and water, so the back and forth is to be expected. The Writer’s Guild also fiercely opposed Comcast’s merger with NBCUniversal. But when it comes to who is playing fast and loose with the truth, it isn’t the group that writes for a living. Comcast’s doublespeak about data caps is no better than calling The Great Recession a periodic equity retreat. It isn’t fooling anyone.

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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...
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