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Sad Tales About Executives’ Lives Disrupted By Never-to-Be GreatLand Communications Are Breaking Our Hearts

CryingTowel1The would-be CEO picked to head the illegitimate child of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger wants your sympathy and understanding over the loss of bulging signing bonuses, pay packages, and benefits with the demise of the cable company that never was: GreatLand Connections.

While about 2.5 million customers in Minnesota, Indiana, and Kentucky braced for the arrival of their new cable company — one that lacked letterhead, much less any track record or experience — executives shared a box of tissues contemplating the wasted stress of moving their children from one exclusive private school to another in the ‘barren cultural wasteland’ of the midwest.

“The people aspect of this is just breathtaking,” said GreatLand’s never CEO Michael Willner, who has now been sidelined by Time Warner Cable twice – once when the company he used to oversee, Insight Communications, was absorbed into the Time Warner hegemony and now a second time, when the rug was pulled out of the cable company he was hired to run. “For 14 months this deal was meandering through the regulatory process, for whatever reason they just decided that after all the planning and all the money and all the people commitment and people who had moved to other cities, and planning to move for other cities for new jobs – there were even a few people who were told they wouldn’t have jobs after the close – they just decided there was no way to do the deal. It was unprecedented.”

Willner can keep on smiling.

Willner can keep on smiling.

Willner told his sad tale to Multichannel News, noting (thank goodness) there wasn’t a giant warehouse in the midwest full of GreatLand truck decals looking for a new home. In fact Willner spent the last 14 months preoccupied with filling 15-20 top senior vice president and vice president management positions, dangling lucrative pay and bonus offers to convince executives to move their elite east coast families to a state like… Kentucky. Time Warner Cable treasurer Matt Siegel, his biggest catch, had already bitten and was considering his new home options.

Meanwhile, nervous employees of the systems scheduled to be thrown overboard by Comcast forced Willner to personally stop by their offices several times over the past 14 months to reassure them they did not have anything to worry about.

“All the people going to GreatLand were Comcast people,” Willner said, claiming, “These employees loved working for Comcast. I had to convince them that life would be OK with us. It took me awhile.”

Willner did not bother reassuring affected customers.

In the end, it was all for naught.

“When they said ‘We’re done,’ we were done too,” Willner cried after the Comcast-TWC deal swirled in the bowl.

Despite the “unprecedented” disruption, Willner and his would-be executives all landed on their feet. Siegel went back to Time Warner Cable, most of the other executives stayed with Comcast and Willner himself did not have to skip a beat, instantly resuming his old job as CEO of video software company Penthera Partners.

Source: FCC Will Get Serious About Data Caps if Comcast Moves to Impose Them Nationwide

fccA well-placed source in Washington, D.C. with knowledge of the matter tells Stop the Cap! the Federal Communications Commission is prepared to take a hard look at the issue of Internet data caps and usage-based billing if a major cable operator like Comcast imposes usage allowances on its broadband customers nationwide.

Comcast introduced its usage cap market trial in Nashville, Tenn. in 2012 but gradually expanded it to include Huntsville and Mobile, Alabama; Atlanta, Augusta and Savannah, Georgia; Central Kentucky; Maine; Jackson, Mississippi; Knoxville and Memphis, Tennessee; Charleston, South Carolina; and Tucson, Arizona.

“Two and a half-years is exceptionally long for a ‘market trial,’ and we expected Comcast would avoid creating an issue for regulators by drawing attention to the data cap issue during its attempted merger with Time Warner Cable,” said our source. “Now that the merger is off, there is growing expectation Comcast will make a decision about its ‘data usage plans’ soon.”

In most test markets, Comcast is limiting residential customers to 300GB of usage per month, after which an overlimit fee of $10 per 50GB applies. Despite that, Comcast’s forthcoming premium gigabit speed plans are exempt from usage caps, the company announced.

Comcast sustomers in market test cities have not been happy with the usage caps, some confronted with inaccurate usage measurement tools or “bill shock” after claiming to find surprise charges on their cable bill. One federal employee offered his own story of bill shock — $200 in overlimit fees on his April Comcast bill. The customer spent $70 a month on broadcast basic cable television and Comcast Internet service. As an almost cord-cutter, he could instead rely on one of several alternative online video providers like Netflix or Hulu, but watching video that did not come from Comcast’s cable TV package contributed to eating his monthly usage allowance and subjected him to hundreds of dollars in extra fees.

cohen“I’ve reviewed [the] account to see and can confirm the charges are valid,” responded a Comcast representative who defended the company’s usage cap trials. “Please understand that we are not here to take advantage of customers. We are here to provide a great customer service experience.  After researching [the] account, at this time no matter what level of service you obtain, the Internet usage [allowance] will remain the same.”

To date, the Federal Communications Commission has left the issue of data caps and usage-based billing on the back burner, despite a Government Accounting Office report that found little justification for usage limits or compulsory usage allowances on broadband.

In 2012, former FCC chairman Julius Genachowski defended the practice, claiming it would bring lower prices to light users, spur “innovation” and enable consumer choice. But Comcast customers have found little, if any savings from Comcast’s so-called “data usage plans.” The only savings comes from enrollment in Comcast’s Flexible Data Option, which offers a $5 discount if a customer keeps usage under 5GB a month on just one plan — Comcast’s 3Mbps $39.95/mo Economy Plus tier.

“We don’t see much innovation coming from Comcast’s usage limit trials because Internet pricing continues to rise and the plans have the side effect of discouraging customers from using competing video providers, which can consume a lot of a customer’s usage allowance,” our source adds.

You're over our arbitrary usage limit!

You are over our arbitrary usage limit!

As far as enabling consumer choice, Comcast’s own representative put the kibosh on that, unless a customer wants to pay higher Internet bills.

Net Neutrality and issues surrounding Title II have consumed much of the FCC’s attention in the residential broadband business during the first half of the Obama Administration’s second term. Usage billing and data caps are likely to become bigger issues during the second half if there is a decisive move towards compulsory usage limits and consumption billing by large operators.

“An operator the size of Comcast absolutely will draw scrutiny,” said our source. “If Comcast decides to impose its currently tested market trial plans on Comcast customers nationwide, the FCC will take a closer look. Under Title II, the agency is empowered to watch for attempts to circumvent Net Neutrality policies. Usage caps and charging additional fees to customers looking for an alternative to the cable television package will qualify, especially if Comcast continues to try to exempt itself.”

Cable industry officials have also become aware of the buzz surrounding usage caps and growing regulator concern. Some reportedly discussed the possibility of FCC intervention behind closed doors at the recent cable industry conference in Chicago. Multichannel News reported (sub. req.) cable industry executives increasingly fear federal officials will ban usage pricing for wired broadband service on competitive grounds. Online video competitors rely on large cable and phone companies to reach prospective customers, many that may think twice if usage allowances are imposed on consumer broadband accounts.

Google Unveils Project Fi Wireless Service: $20/Mo Voice/Text + $10/GB Data Plan That Credits Back Unused Data

google fiGoogle today unveiled their new wireless service, dubbed Project Fi, the first wireless carrier that combines the coverage of two competing cellular providers — Sprint and T-Mobile — to deliver affordable wireless service and a data plan that rebates back any unused portion of your monthly allowance. There are no term contracts, early termination fees, or overlimit penalty charges.

Google’s calling plan starts with Fi Basics for $20 per month. This includes:

  • Unlimited domestic talk and text;
  • Unlimited international texts;
  • Low-cost international calls;
  • Wi-Fi tethering;
  • Coverage in 120+ countries (Unlimited international texts are included in the plan, Cellular calls cost 20c per minute. If calling over Wi-Fi, per-minute costs vary based on which country you’re calling and you’re charged only for outbound calls.)

There is no unlimited data plan, presumably because neither T-Mobile or Sprint was willing to allow Google to offer one. Google tries to turn that into a plus by telling customers they should only pay for the data they actually use. The 2G/3G/4G data plan is $10/GB, sold in 1GB increments up to 10GB. Whatever data you do not use is converted into a cash amount credited to the following month’s bill. Instead of rolling over data, you roll over dollars. If you exceed your allowance, there are no penalty overlimit fees. Instead, you are charged $10 for an additional gigabyte of usage, with the same privilege of getting a cash credit applied to your next bill for any data you didn’t use.

Google assumes you will spend most of your time connected to Wi-Fi, where it offers free Wi-Fi calling and texting. If you lose your Wi-Fi connection, the phone will connect to either Sprint or T-Mobile’s network without losing a call in-progress. Another unique aspect of the service is that your mobile phone number lives in the cloud, so you can talk and text with your number on just about any phone, tablet or laptop using Google Hangouts.

The Nexus 6 is a real handful. It's also the only phone that will currently work on Google Fi.

The Nexus 6 is a real handful. It’s also the only phone that will work on Google Fi.

Google Project Fi relies on Sprint and T-Mobile’s combined networks to deliver coverage, trying to satisfy customers seeking Verizon or AT&T-like coverage. Google’s service seamlessly chooses Wi-Fi first, followed by Sprint or T-Mobile depending on which offers the best 4G signal at your location.

Although the service has been anticipated for some time, there are some caveats to consider before rushing to sign up.

First, you cannot sign-up immediately, you can only request an invitation. As with many other new Google projects, invitation-only service means it could be days, weeks, or even a month before you can sign-up.

Second, a view of Google’s coverage map shows Project Fi has substantially reduced dead spots, but has not eliminated them. Project Fi would likely appeal to Sprint or T-Mobile customers now frustrated by their suburban coverage. Chances are good that between the two carriers, one will deliver a robust signal even if the other does not. But rural areas have always been bypassed by both carriers and this makes Project Fi a bad choice if Sprint and T-Mobile are not good options where you live or work.

For example, much of eastern Kentucky, virtually the entire state of West Virginia, and western Virginia offer little to no 3G/4G coverage. Google Fi only promises 2G coverage in these areas, through a roaming agreement T-Mobile or Sprint has with a larger carrier.

Third, unless you already own a Nexus 6, you will be spending at least $650 to buy a new smartphone. Google will initially only support the Nexus 6 for Project Fi, because it is the only phone capable of switching between Google’s wireless partners. It comes in your choice of colors, if your choice is “Midnight Blue.” The smartphone offers two storage sizes—32GB ($649) and 64GB ($699). You can buy the Nexus 6 up front or finance your phone at 0% interest or fees for 24 months at $27.04/month for the 32GB option or $29.12/month for the 64GB option. A credit check is required for the financing option.

Fourth, there are no family plan options. Each phone is assigned to its own account. If you intend to switch your family of four, you will be dealing with four individual accounts (and a whopping $2,600 to acquire four Nexus 6 phones). Because of the invitation-only approach now in effect, it may take some time to get all of your family members up and running.

Finally, Google intends that its mobile service effectively sells itself. That means they are not offering promotions to sign up and will not pay your existing carrier to cover any early termination fees. You can port your current landline or mobile telephone number to the service. Google does not disclose any fees for doing so.

Google produced this introductory video about its new wireless service: Google Project Fi. (1:56)

Windstream Introduces Kinetic IPTV Triple Play in Lincoln, Neb.; Includes Wireless Set-Top Boxes, Whole House DVR

kinetic logoWindstream this week introduced its fiber to the neighborhood service Kinetic – its attempt to bring a competitive triple-play package of broadband, home phone, and television service to about 50,000 homes initially in Lincoln, Neb.

“We’re extremely excited to launch Kinetic in Lincoln,” said David Redmond, president of small business and consumer at Windstream. “Over the last year, we have heard loudly and clearly that this community is excited and eager for an alternative TV service. Windstream is confident that residents that sign up for Kinetic will find a highly interactive experience and a smarter way to watch TV than cable or satellite.”

The project in Lincoln will test consumer reaction and help the company plan if or how it plans to expand the service across many of its other service areas across the country.

Powered by the Ericsson Mediaroom platform, Kinetic is Windstream’s effort to squeeze about as much use of its existing copper wire infrastructure as possible. Like AT&T U-verse, Kinetic requires a fiber connection part of the way to customers, but continues to rely on existing copper telephone wiring already in the subscriber’s neighborhood. In effect, it’s an enhanced DSL platform that will split available bandwidth between television, Internet access and home phone service.

One unique aspect of Kinetic is its use of a next generation, compact whole home DVR that can record four shows at the same time, supplemented with wireless set-top boxes ($7/mo each), that allow subscribers to take the service to any television in the home without wiring. A subscriber can even move a television out into the yard and not lose service.

Remarkably, Windstream — an independent telephone company — completely de-emphasizes its own phone service in its up front promotions. Unless customers dig deeper into the Kinetic website, they will find prominently featured double play packages of television and Internet service starting at $59.98 a month. Telephone service is offered (and priced) almost as an afterthought, bundled into various packages for $5 extra a month. Phone customers get unlimited nationwide local and long distance calling.

Windstream produced this introductory video to its new Kinetic TV service, offered initially to 50,000 homes in Lincoln, Neb. (1:20)

kinetic

We added the pricing details for Home Phone service.

The biggest limitation Windstream faces marketing the service is its legacy network of copper wires. Customers can only qualify for the service if the connection between their home and Windstream’s central office is good enough to sustain the speeds required to handle all three services at the same time. The company is focusing Kinetic squarely on customers looking for a cable television alternative to Lincoln’s only other provider — Time Warner Cable. That may be because Kinetic remains disadvantaged in the broadband department.

The highest Internet speed a Kinetic customer can buy is 15Mbps, which is the speed Time Warner Cable offers in its “Standard” package. Time Warner currently sells up to 50/5Mbps in Lincoln — more than three times faster than Windstream’s Kinetic. Many Windstream DSL customers have complained they don’t come close to the speeds they are paying for, particularly during peak usage periods. A Facebook group with over 500 customers exists to discuss exactly that issue. Whether it will be different for Kinetic customers is not yet known, but the company’s lawyers are prepared for that possibility.

Windstream's Whole House DVR is only about the length of its remote control.

Windstream’s Whole House DVR is only about the length of its remote control.

“Windstream cannot guarantee speeds or uninterrupted, error-free service,” the company says in its terms and conditions. “Internet speed claims represent maximum network service capability speeds.  Actual customer speeds may vary based on factors including simultaneous use of multiple devices, use of other Windstream services, customer device capabilities, Internet and Network congestion, website traffic, content provider service capacity, customer location, network conditions, and bandwidth devoted to carriage or protocol and network information.”

At least there are no usage caps.

Kinetic subscribers are also warned that just like DSL broadband, line quality will impact the kind of television service received.

“Kinetic TV includes digital channels (including local channels), one receiver and up to four standard direct video streams to the customer residence,” Windstream notes. “Of the four standard direct video streams per residence, customer’s location will determine both high definition (“HD”) availability and the maximum number of HD video streams (between one and four) a customer can view and record in HD at any one time, regardless of the number of receivers in the residence.  The remaining streams will be standard definition.”

Kinetic’s channel lineup is comparable to that of Time Warner Cable, with some minor exceptions. Time Warner imports some regional over the air channels from adjacent cities, Windstream does not. Certain channels like Turner Classic Movies are available on Kinetic, but only for customers subscribing to the most expensive tier. Time Warner offers that channel on its less expensive Standard tier.

Limited bandwidth may limit your broadband speeds and the number of HD channels you can watch at any one time.

Limited bandwidth may limit your broadband speeds and the number of HD channels you can watch at any one time.

Time Warner Cable spokesman Mike Hogan took indirect shots at both the City of Lincoln and Windstream in response to the introduction of Kinetic.

“Lincoln residents can count on the fact that Time Warner Cable will offer the best choices for TV, Internet, home phone and home security to the entire city — in sharp contrast to competitors who only serve select areas, or won’t even say where they will or won’t serve,” Hogan said in an email to the Journal-Star.

That’s a reference to Windstream’s refusal to specify exactly where in Lincoln Kinetic is available.

Stop the Cap! surveyed more than 100 Lincoln-area addresses this morning and found Kinetic available primarily in wealthy and newer neighborhoods south and southeast of the city center, including zip codes such as 68516. A review of real estate transactions across the city of Lincoln showed home prices in this area are well above other parts of the city. That suggests Windstream is targeting the service to higher-income neighborhoods during its initial rollout, which plans to reach up to 45 percent of city households.

Although Windstream officials expect to bring Kinetic to about 80% of Lincoln, the city has given the company 15 years to complete the project. Further expansion may also depend on how customers respond to Kinetic.

With plenty of time, Windstream may choose to turn its attention elsewhere, eventually introducing the service in other cities across its 18-state service area of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Texas, before it gets around to wiring urban poor neighborhoods in Lincoln.

Cable industry defenders believe Time Warner Cable and Windstream are being treated differently by city officials. Hogan notes the cable company is required to serve the entire metropolitan area, unlike Windstream that critics contend may be interested only in cherry-picking the low-hanging fruit.

Windstream’s announcement leaves just two significant independent telephone companies without IPTV offerings: FairPoint and Frontier Communications.

KLKN in Lincoln covered the Windstream event introducing Kinetic TV to Lincoln and talked with company officials about what the new service offers Lincoln and how much it costs in comparison to Time Warner Cable, the area’s incumbent cable company. (2:29)

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

Phillip Dampier January 29, 2015 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, Internet Overcharging, Public Policy & Gov't, Time Warner Cable Comments Off on 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

Phillip Dampier October 1, 2014 Charter, Comcast/Xfinity, Competition, Consumer News, GreatLand Connections, Public Policy & Gov't, Time Warner Cable Comments Off on 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.

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

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