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Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

Zombie Merger: Charter Communications Still Pursuing Bright House Networks Merger Originally Left for Dead

Phillip Dampier May 21, 2015 Bright House, Charter, Competition, Consumer News No Comments

zombie boardBright House Networks customers in central Florida are not excited by the news Charter Communications is still pursuing Bright House Networks, and both companies recently agreed to extend the deadline by 30 days for a final deal to be placed on the table.

Charter had bid $10.4 billion to acquire Bright House, which serves customers mostly in the south, including the cities of Tampa and Orlando.

“We look forward to completing the transaction as planned, and our teams are working together to make that happen,” Charter chief executive Tom Rutledge said. Reuters had recently reported Bright House was preparing to “abandon” the Charter deal, believing it was better off with sn existing cooperation agreement with Time Warner Cable.

One reason the merger talks are moving forward could be a sense Bright House’s owners have received that Time Warner Cable is still ready to sell itself to a new buyer after its merger with Comcast collapsed. One of those potential buyers remains Charter itself.

“It’s not great news for Orlando if Charter buys Bright House Networks,” says Mike Donahue, a Bright House customer for over a decade. “I had Charter when I lived in Missouri and they were terrible. I realize Charter is somewhat different today, but consumer ratings still land Charter near the bottom while Bright House has been closer to the top.”

Charter’s ongoing interest in acquiring Bright House may be to use it as a leveraging tool in its pursuit of Time Warner Cable.

Acquiring Bright House would give Charter a stronger balance sheet, allowing it to borrow more money to make a cash-rich offer for Time Warner Cable, analysts said.

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)

AT&T Adds Atlanta, Chicago and Decatur for GigaPower Gigabit Fiber Most Won’t See Anytime Soon

Notice the word "may"

Notice the word “may”

AT&T has promised an undisclosed number of customers in Chicago, Ill., and Atlanta, Decatur, and Newnan, Ga., will eventually get GigaPower upgrades to AT&T’s U-verse service, after moving customers to an all-fiber network that will deliver up to 1Gbps service.

“As a city that prides itself on creating a favorable environment for investment and innovation, I am happy to see AT&T bringing its ultra-high speed fiber network to the City of Atlanta,” said Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed. “This is a great opportunity for our residents, businesses and visitors, who all stand to benefit from this new service. The City of Atlanta is one of the fastest growing tech hubs in the United States and a hotbed for entrepreneurial activity.  U-verse with AT&T GigaPower service will complement this engine of economic growth and help pave the way for future opportunities.”

But before the mayor gets too excited, he should consider AT&T’s track record for GigaPower upgrades in other cities where the service is offered. Customers complain the gigabit upgrade is difficult to get in single family homes, with most of the upgrades targeting multi-dwelling units like large condos or apartment blocks or new housing developments.

Customers in Austin complain to Stop the Cap! AT&T GigaPower looks more like a demonstration project than a serious effort at expanding super fast fiber broadband. Although pockets of service are established in some upscale areas, nobody at AT&T is willing to answer customers’ questions about exactly when service will arrive in unserved neighborhoods. Technicians are privately telling readers it will take more than a year for serious expansion efforts to begin across Austin.

While AT&T drags its feet on fiber expansion, it has no trouble hurrying out press releases suggesting cities including Atlanta, Augusta, Charlotte, Chicago, Cleveland, Fort Worth, Fort Lauderdale, Greensboro, Houston, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Oakland, Orlando, San Antonio, San Diego, St. Louis, San Francisco, and San Jose will soon see GigaPower in their areas. But AT&T isn’t putting much money where its mouth is, failing to significantly increase capital spending to upgrade the U-verse network.

In fact, AT&T executives have repeatedly reassured investors the company has no plans for a significant uptick in wireline capital spending — exactly what would be required to complete the gigabit expansion effort AT&T promises in press releases. In contrast, AT&T’s 2012 $14 billion Project Velocity IP (or VIP) was the company’s most visible and ambitious network build out initiative in wired service since the introduction of U-verse. Project VIP delivered a clear expansion of U-verse into new areas and brought new fiber connections to buildings, many that are now in use to offer GigaPower service in Austin.

Fiber broadband expansion is not cheap, and even after AT&T committed $14 billion to its expansion effort two years ago, the results are modest for U-verse because a considerable portion of the funds spent were invested in AT&T’s wireless network instead — always a priority:

State / City Investment amt. (wireless & wireline) U-verse locations Business connections On-net buildings Total investment (2010-2012)
California $1.15 billion 127,700 30,400 800 $7 billion
 — San Diego 15,950 2,900 90 $750 million
Texas $1 billion 138,300 24,200 600 $7 billion
Georgia $675 million $2.5 billion
 — Atlanta 12,100 11,450 400
Florida $425 million 25,050 18,450 550 $2.8 billion
Indiana $325 million 18,000 1,300 60 $1.3 billion
Michigan $275 million 35,550 2,150 70 $1.55 billion
Missouri $250 million 27,300 3,650 150 not reported
North Carolina $250 Million 9,900 1,800 50 $1.5 billion
Ohio $225 million 31,200 1,100 40 $1.5 billion
Alabama $200 million 6,600 600 20 $1.4 billion
Louisiana $175 million not reported 2,100 35 $1.2 billion
Mississippi $175 million 5,800 175 4 $975 million
Tennessee $175 million 13,600 325 9 $1.4 billion
Connecticut $140 million 6,600 1,100 40 $750 million
South Carolina $140 million 21,100 250 9 $850 million
Wisconsin $140 million N/A 525 20 $725 million
Oklahoma $120 million 13,850 875 25 $700 million
Kansas $110 million 10,150 650 30 $725 million
Nevada $110 million not reported 200 7 $600 million
Arkansas $90 million 8,750 1,000 25 $700 million

Chart courtesy: FierceTelecom

Data compiled from publicly released company information.

Reflecting on the numbers, it would take an investment at least equal, if not greater, than AT&T spent on Project VIP for AT&T to significantly upgrade the communities it claims will soon have access to GigaPower. Instead, it is more likely AT&T will introduce a handful of gigabit show projects and then incrementally upgrade selected neighborhoods over the next 3-5 years.

Existing competition makes all the difference as to what customers will pay for gigabit service from AT&T, assuming they can buy it at any price. As Google Fiber tears up the streets of Austin, it is clear Google will deliver real competition in that city, forcing AT&T to price its gigabit service at $70 a month (for customers willing to have their online activities tracked by AT&T). In nearby Dallas, where competition isn’t as robust, customers will have to pay at least $120 a month for the service.

52 Mayors Pledge Allegiance to Comcast’s Merger Deal; Is Yours on the List?

mayorsMore than 50 mayors of towns and cities large and small regurgitated Comcast-provided talking points in a joint letter submitted to the FCC in support of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger:

The combination of these two American companies will bring benefits to every affected city. Cities joining the Comcast service area will benefit from increased network investment, faster Internet speeds, improved video options and leading community development programs to help us tackle important community challenges like the digital divide. Existing Comcast markets will enjoy the benefits of a company with the scale and scope to invest in innovation and deliver products and services on a regional basis.

For us, the most significant aspect of the proposed transaction is its capacity to propel new investment in infrastructure in Time Warner markets that will enhance video and Internet service in our communities. Comcast has pledged to invest hundreds of millions of dollars a year speeding up and improving the combined company’s networks.

We also view positively the apparent response to this development from other companies that provide similar services. Since the Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction was proposed, Google has announced plans to expand its high-speed Fiber service to 34 new communities, AT&T has announced plans to expand its 1 gigabit U-Verse service to 100 new municipalities including 21 large cities, and Sprint’s corporate parent has proposed to build a 200 Mbps wireless network for the US.

In addition to being terribly misleading, parts of the letter are factually inaccurate. The letter’s text was taken almost entirely from Comcast’s own talking points released to the media and disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown 2012: Time Warner Cable is naughty. 2014: Time Warner Cable is nice.

Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown
2012: Time Warner Cable is naughty.
2014: Time Warner Cable is nice.

Remarkably, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown managed a complete flip-flop on his views of Time Warner Cable. In 2012, he co-signed a letter accusing Comcast and Time Warner Cable of anticompetitive behavior, runaway rate increases, and a growing digital divide. He was speaking about Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s  decision to partner with Verizon Wireless to jointly market products to their customers:

“We are deeply worried that the anti-competitive partnership between Verizon Wireless, the nation’s largest wireless provider, and four of the leading cable companies will have a negative impact on economic development and job creation in our cities, leading to higher prices, fewer service options, and a growing digital divide, “ the letter reads. “As you review the Verizon Wireless/cable transaction, we strongly urge you to examine the impact of this transaction on competition and consumer choice, and ensure that our communities are not left behind.”

This year, despite the fact both Comcast and Time Warner Cable still have their cross-marketing agreement with Verizon and both cable operators have raised prices, Brown joined the other mayors heaping praise on both cable companies:

Time Warner Cable has been a responsible corporate citizen whose efforts will only be enhanced by joining forces with Comcast’s community investment programs. Comcast has established itself as an industry leader and exemplary community partner who invests in its local communities and works hand in hand with local governments on critical social challenges like the digital divide.

Except when it is not.

Matthew Keys, who comments on journalism and social media, notes the Comcast merger has little to do with broadband expansion at other companies:

But the mayors failed to note that Sprint’s pledge of a faster wireless data network was predicated on a merger with rival T-Mobile, which fell through earlier this month. In addition, AT&T’s 1-Gigabit Internet service is likely being offered as an incentive for the FCC to approve its own proposed merger with Comcast competitor DirecTV; the Internet service is offered to residents in a handful of cities at a whopping $100 a month, nearly triple what the company sells it’s basic broadband Internet service for. And while the mayors assert that Google is expanding its Fiber service to more than 30 areas, they fail to note that Google is in preliminary talks with those communities and that the rollout may never happen.

If any providers inspired a broadband speed Renaissance, it was Google Fiber and a handful of gigabit community-owned fiber networks like EPB in Chattanooga, all demonstrating fast speeds and affordable pricing can go hand in hand when your primary interest is serving customers, not shoveling money at shareholders.

Customers who happen to live in the cities below might want to fill the email boxes and melt down the phone lines of these mayors who have demonstrated a willingness to throw their constituents under the bus (Matthew Keys did an exceptional job collecting their contact information).

Feel free to share our fact-based testimony with the mayors and let them know you don’t appreciate the fact they are spending taxpayer time and money advocating for a multi-billion dollar cable merger the majority of Americans oppose. Then remind them if this merger succeeds, you will think of them every time you have a problem with your cable service, when your bill increases, and when you discover Comcast has rationed your use of the Internet with a compulsory usage allowance. Because these problems always come fast and furious with Comcast, let them know you will have no trouble recalling their role in bringing Comcast to town when you go and vote.

Mayor Name
City
State
E-mail
Phone Number
William Bell Birmingham Alabama [email protected] (205) 254-2283
Tom Tait Anaheim California [email protected] (714) 765-5247
Kathleen DeRosa Cathedral City California [email protected] (760) 770-0340
Harry Price Fairfield California [email protected] (707) 428-7400
Acquanetta Warren Fontana California [email protected] (909) 350-7600
Jeffrey Gee Redwood City California [email protected] (650) 780-7597
Steve Hogan Aurora Colorado [email protected] (303) 739-7015
Marc Williams Arvada Colorado [email protected] (303) 424-4486
Richard McLean Brighton Colorado [email protected] (303) 655-2266
Michael Hancock Denver Colorado [email protected] (303) 331-3872
Pedro Segarra Hartford Connecticut [email protected] (860) 757-9500
Cindy Lerner Pinecrest Florida [email protected] (305) 234-2121
Joy Cooper Hallandale Beach Florida [email protected] (954) 457-1318
Alvin Brown Jacksonville Florida [email protected] (904) 630-1776
George Vallejo N. Miami Beach Florida [email protected] (305) 948-2986
John Marks Tallahassee Florida [email protected] (850) 891-2000
Tomas Regalado Miami Florida [email protected] (305) 250-5300
Lori Moseley Miramar Florida [email protected] (954) 602-3142
Buddy Dyer Orlando Florida [email protected] (407) 246-2221
Frank Ortis Pembroke Pines Florida [email protected] (954) 435-6505
Michael Boehm Lenexa Kansas [email protected] (913) 477-7550
Michael Copeland Olathe Kansas [email protected] (913) 971-8500
Kevin Dumas Attleboro Massachusetts [email protected] (508) 223-2222
Gary Christenson Malden Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 397-7000
Michael McGlynn Medford Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 393-2409
Daniel Rizzo Revere Massachusetts [email protected] (781) 286-8111
Albert Kelly Bridgeton New Jersey [email protected] (856)-455-3230
Dana Redd Camden New Jersey [email protected] (856) 757-7200
Frank Nolan Highlands New Jersey [email protected] (732) 872-1224
David DelVecchio Lambert New Jersey [email protected] (609) 397-0110
Gary Passanante Somerdale New Jersey [email protected] (856) 783-6320
Thomas Kelaher Toms River New Jersey [email protected] (732) 341-1000
Eric Jackson Trenton New Jersey [email protected] (609) 989-3030
Richard Berry Albuquerque New Mexico [email protected] (505) 768-3000
Ken Miyagishima Las Cruces New Mexico [email protected] (575) 541-2067
Byron Brown Buffalo New York [email protected] (716) 851-4890
Ernest D. Davis Mount Vernon New York [email protected] (914) 665-2300
Lou Odgen Tualatin Oregon [email protected] (503) 691-3011
Joseph DiGirolamo Bensalem Pennsylvania [email protected] (215) 633-3603
Eric Papenfuse Harrisburg Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 255-3040
Rick Gray Lancaster Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 291-4701
Robert A. McMahon Media Pennsylvania [email protected] (610) 566-5210
Michael Nutter Philadelphia Pennsylvania [email protected] (215) 686-2181
C. Kim Bracey York Pennsylvania [email protected] (717) 849-2221
Joseph Riley Charleston South Carolina [email protected] (843) 577-6970
Stephen Benjamin Columbia South Carolina [email protected] (803) 545-3075
Lee Leffingwell Austin Texas [email protected] (512) 974-2250
Beth Van Duyne Irving Texas [email protected] (972) 721-2410
Allen Owen Missouri City Texas [email protected] (281) 403-8500
Leonard Scarcella Stafford Texas [email protected] (281) 261-3900
Matthew Doyle Texas City Texas [email protected] (409) 643-5902

This article updated 8/28 to reflect that Pedro Segarra is the mayor of Hartford, Conn., not Hartford, Colo.

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.

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)

Charter’s Rebranded “Spectrum” Service Arrives in Fort Worth; New Name, New Reputation?

Phillip Dampier March 25, 2014 Broadband Speed, Charter, Competition, Consumer News, Video 6 Comments

charter spectrum logoCharter Communications’ latest attempt to rehabilitate its reputation with customers in Fort Worth, Tex. arrived this week in area mailboxes, as Charter reintroduced itself as “Charter Spectrum.”

Fort Worth is the first major city to get Charter’s broad-based service upgrade that began more than a year ago with a switch to all digital television service.

The newly available bandwidth no longer needed to support analog television has allowed Charter to expand its video service to more than 200 HD channels, up from fewer than 100.

Customers also start their Spectrum experience with a free broadband speed bump — from 30Mbps to 60/4Mbps (with a barely enforced monthly usage cap of 250GB), and an improved cable telephone service with nationwide calling.

Charter Spectrum's mailer is now arriving in Ft. Worth mailboxes. (Courtesy: TheTechGuru)

Charter Spectrum’s mailer is now arriving in Ft. Worth mailboxes. (Courtesy: TheTechGuru)

Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge openly admitted last year Charter had an inferior product compared against the competition. Upgrading Charter’s cable systems was designed to correct that and the company hopes its rebranding will deliver a marketplace reset, but some Charter customers remain skeptical.

“Same pig, fresh lipstick,” wrote one Charter customer in Missouri.

Others complain Charter’s upload speeds remain anemic at just 4Mbps.

Charter’s new pricing promotions were designed to simplify the shopping experience. There are now just three heavily promoted Spectrum triple play packages:

spectrum packages

A customer taking advantage of the Triple Play Gold promotion will pay a one-year promotional price of $129.97 a month. (Customers can also select individual services or build their own double-play bundle). The fine print mentions the price rises to $149.97 the second year and then reverts to an undisclosed “standard rate” after that. TV set-top boxes are required on every cable-connected television ($7 a month each – not included in the price). The Internet modem carries no additional charge. Phone taxes, fees and surcharges are also covered, but other taxes, fees, and surcharges are not.

Offers are valid for new customers only, and those who have not subscribed within the last 30 days and have no outstanding debt obligation to Charter.

Charter Spectrum arrives only after your local Charter system moves to all-digital television service. That happened last fall in Asheville, N.C., where customers were told they needed a digital set-top box on every television in the home. WLOS-TV covered the story back on Nov. 11, 2013. (1:44)

How Overland Park Blew Google Fiber; Bureaucratic Ineptitude Stalls Project Indefinitely

lucyAfter nine months of foot dragging-negotiations between Overland Park officials and Google Fiber, a last-minute protest by a city council member over an indemnification clause that turned out to be insignificant was the last straw.

Now residents of Overland Park are off Google’s upgrade list for gigabit broadband indefinitely.

Service providers often face a minefield negotiating with local governments over issues like zoning, performance guidelines, franchise agreements, and minimizing disruption to the community. Some also face confusion about technology or a lack of understanding that infrastructure projects require careful scheduling and seasonal construction limitations.

In Overland Park, it was “all of the above” say infuriated residents who watched the fiber project slip away at an Oct. 14 city council meeting when lawyers representing Google requested an indefinite continuance.

“Clearly Google was saying to Overland Park and other cities: if you make this process too difficult for us, we will pick up our ball and go play somewhere else,” said Overland Park resident Robert Walch.

Walch said city council members appeared shocked when Google’s representative broke the news. Just a month earlier, council members including Terry Goodman, Curt Skoog, and Richard Collins seemed intent to pelt Google with a range of objections and unusual questions that suggested a lack of basic knowledge about fiber broadband.

Phillip Dampier

Phillip Dampier

According to those in attendance, Skoog in particular seemed far out of his depth, questioning if 1,000/1,000Mbps was fast enough to provide connections for 6-12 computer terminals inside a local school.

Council member Park Lyons patronizingly told Google representatives Overland Park was one of the best cities in the country and he was glad Google recognized as much.

“There is so much excitement about Google Fiber, and I know people think we should blindly go forward, but I think we need to look at this in a dispassionate way and have due diligence,” Lyons explained.

As Google’s representatives continued to field questions about the project even as the 2013 construction season began to wind down, Skoog sensed Google’s growing exasperation, finally asking at an earlier meeting if they were prepared to walk away over what Skoog characterized as a “minor detail.”

The answer, apparently, was yes, much to the surprise of a stunned city council witnessing a privately funded, multi-million dollar broadband improvement project collapsing before their eyes. Damage control for exposed council members likely to face the wrath of voters began immediately, starting with a symbolic, but largely empty resolution expressing the council’s profound interest in the fiber project they just buried.

“It’s disappointing because it would have been nice to have in the schools and the libraries and stuff. I know that the Internet is really spotty at the school,” Katie Lehn, an Overland Park mother told KCTV-5.

“Overland Park made it really, really hard for Google, and Google has a lot of other cities and towns to work with,” noted Walch. “I have to say, if you’re on Overland Park Council now, you have to know that this is your last term.”

overland parkIndustry observers agree with Walch.

“Google maybe wanted to send a louder message that they wanted faster response from other communities to come,” said Donna Jaegers, a telecommunications analyst for D.A. Davidson & Co. “A month delay would not be enough to put off a design like that.”

“Google is sending a negotiating message to any other city: You take our terms, or we’re going to walk,” said Steve Effros, an industry analyst who headed the Cable Telecommunications Association for two decades.

Effros told the Associated Press Google was obviously making an example out of Overland Park, while getting special treatment from other nearby communities that incumbent cable and phone companies never got.

The message that Google is willing to walk away from lucrative, upscale communities like Overland Park over bureaucratic headaches has an impact on both Google and local government. Overland Park is an upscale community of 176,000 within metro Kansas City. The community’s median household income is more than $66,500 a year — excellent prospects to sign up for Google service.

blew itBut now Overland Park will have to wait even as neighborhoods around the community get the fiber optic service first.

“Overland Park wants Google Fiber,” said Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach. “The city council is ready to sign on the dotted line. … We’re willing to wait as long as it takes.”

Google isn’t ready to forgive and forget just yet, and communities like Overland Park cannot say they were never warned.

Milo Medin, Google’s vice president of access services, told the media in May that Google was picking communities that make their life easier as the fiber infrastructure is installed.

“In general, we go where it’s easy to build,” Medin said. “If you make it hard for me to build, and there are other places where it’s easy to build, I will probably go to those other places.”

Six months later, nothing has changed.

“We need to refocus our energy and our resources on the communities that are waiting for fiber,” said Google spokeswoman Jenna Wandres.

KCTV in Kansas City reports Overland Park residents are unhappy Google Fiber is popping up everywhere, but not in Overland Park.  (3 minutes)

CenturyLink’s Nationwide Outage Hurt Schools, Farms, Local Economies; Get Your Credit

Phillip Dampier May 14, 2013 CenturyLink, Consumer News, Rural Broadband, Video 2 Comments

centurylinkCenturyLink’s massive nationwide broadband service outage on May 7 hurt Florida schools trying to administer online testing, small businesses in Nevada that were forced to close for the day, and frustrated nearly six million customers across both states and in Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, Texas, Kansas, Minnesota, Ohio, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Washington, Virginia, Michigan, Montana, Oregon, Tennessee, and Illinois.

An unspecified router failure disrupted broadband service for up to eight hours, and it could not have come at a worse time for Lee County and Cape Charter Schools in Florida that had to postpone state-mandated tests that are completed by students online.

Dr. Lee Bush told WZVN when things like this happen it is not good for the students or area schools.

“There’s a window of time for these tests and there’s a short period of time left. It does affect us,” said Dr. Bush.

The Las Vegas Sun also found itself without Internet access for much of the day, which also brought the newspaper’s website down. Several area businesses that depend on the Internet decided to send workers home late in the morning after it became clear CenturyLink had no realistic expectation of when service would be restored.

The Clark County School District, which serves Las Vegas, also reported their broadband service was interrupted.

In Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin outages created a significant problem for farmers cut off from commodity trading markets during the morning hours.

“An early Tuesday morning in May is definitely not a good time to have a long-lasting service outage for agribusiness,” said Sam Haupmann, who advises small and medium-sized farms on telecommunications matters. “Connectivity is very important for the farm economy these days, and farmers can’t just switch to the cable company or a cell phone. There often is no cable company serving farms and cell phone service can be difficult in rural areas.”

Ask CenturyLink to credit your account for the May 7 outage.

Ask CenturyLink to credit your account for the May 7 outage.

Ed Perrine, the chief of operations of Network Tallahassee, a Florida provider, told the Tallahassee Democrat all of his operations went down in the outage, affecting at least 4,000 customers and the 600 to 700 businesses they serve on the Florida Panhandle alone.

Perrine is not too happy with early reports CenturyLink’s massive outage could have come as a result of botched routine maintenance right before the start of business on a weekday:

Perrine said he spoke with CenturyLink at 6 a.m. where they advised him the company was doing scheduled maintenance. At 7:35 a.m. they told him something had gone wrong during the maintenance and it was affecting customers in 13 states.

By 10:30 a.m., the company advised the outage had spread to 22 states.

Perrine said the company has not told him what is causing the outage, but said that just after 11 a.m., the company advised Perrine that they were in the process of restoring service.

The timing of the update is questionable according to Perrine, who said maintenance is normally scheduled on early Sunday morning so if something goes wrong businesses won’t be affected.

CenturyLink had no plans to issue automatic service credits to affected customers, but you can request a refund for a day of lost service by contacting CenturyLink by phone or e-mail.

WBBH in Fort Myers explains how a nationwide CenturyLink Internet outage on May 7 hurt the local economy, affected area schools, and frustrated area businesses and residents. (2 minutes)

Our Response to Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld Regarding Tom Wheeler

Phillip "Friends Can Agree to Disagee" Dampier

Phillip “Friends Can Agree to Disagree” Dampier

Are we being unnecessarily pessimistic and cynical when we oppose the likely nomination of Thomas Wheeler to replace Julius Genachowski as the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission?

Some of our colleagues in the consumer-focused public policy arena suspect we might be.

Stop the Cap! is very skeptical that appointing a former cable and wireless industry lobbyist with 30+ years of experience is the best choice for consumers at the FCC.

Our friend Harold Feld from Public Knowledge, which has announced cautious support for Wheeler’s appointment, has a more optimistic view about his potential:

I understand where my friends are coming from when they look at Wheeler’s resume and think “oh God, another Washington insider, why can’t we ever get a real progressive!” But I cannot agree with Senator Rockefeller’s statement that “a lobbyist, is a lobbyist,” or the view of some that the taint of industry clings insidiously forever and corrodes the soul. It’s been ten years since Wheeler left CTIA, longer than that since he left NTCA. Had he really been interested in advancing the agendas of these industries, he was in an excellent position to do so when he headed up the Obama transition team. He did not. Indeed, Susan Crawford and Kevin Werbach, long-time stalwarts of the public interest who worked for Wheeler on the transition team, have joined other public interest luminaries as Wheelers strongest public supporters. Had Wheeler been working behind the scenes in the transition to promote the incumbents, I expect Susan and Kevin would have known.

I also recognize that support from public interest friends is also not conclusive. But it should surely weigh in the evaluation of Wheeler as much as any blog post. And I recognize I’m also a “Washington insider” and as likely to be led astray by my personal friendships and the whole “Washington Bubble” culture as any other human being. That’s why I’m glad people in the community are asking the right questions and putting Wheeler on notice that, like any Chairman, he needs to prove himself as a champion of the public interest. We at PK have also made it clear we expect Wheeler to not just talk a good game, but to get his hands dirty and make tough decisions that will piss off incumbents. And when we disagree, as we expect we will, have no doubt we will make our displeasure known.

Harold specifically commented on our piece reviewing Wheeler’s personal blog, in which Wheeler fell all over himself praising AT&T’s chief lobbyist Jim Cicconi, and seemed resigned to approving a proposed AT&T/T-Mobile merger with some preconditions:

It is certainly true that behavioral conditions often fall short, are short lived, and that companies generally find ways to work around them (and the FCC’s track record for enforcement is pathetic). Indeed, we at PK made these arguments in the context of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger for why no set of merger remedies could adequately address the harms such a merger would cause. But there is a huge difference between my belief that Wheeler was wrong about the best strategy to advance the public interest and accepting that he was motivated by a covert desire to support consolidation and deregulation.

It is more than likely we will have to do business with Tom Wheeler, and we can certainly understand efforts to paint a more optimistic and hopeful picture of the likely new chairman. But we would be dishonest if we said we have high hopes Wheeler will think first about ordinary Americans before steering the country’s telecommunications future. We have learned from the past.

Remember Your History: Catering to Big Special Interests is Bipartisan

cable ratesHaving covered the telecommunications industry since the 1980s when Dr. John Malone of Tele-Communications, Inc., was the American consumers’ worst nightmare, confronting today’s increasingly consolidated and expensive telecommunications marketplace is a case of “Back to the Future.” The deregulation and industry consolidation abuses in the 1980s riled up both Republicans and Democrats — wherever constituents flooded offices with complaints about the local cable monopoly. The “problem politicians” that reflexively defended the abusers were just as bipartisan. Sen. Tim Wirth (D-Colo.) primarily represented the interests of the cable companies that were headquartered in his state. Current Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also defended the cable companies. Sen. John Danforth (R-Mo.) was outraged at the abuses cable operators like TCI heaped on Missouri consumers and not only introduced legislation to stop the abuse in 1992, he also was instrumental in overriding a presidential veto of the measure.

The first mistake one can make in this fight is characterizing this as “progressive” vs. “conservative.” Real conservatives want all-out competition to manage winners and losers. Progressives want to make sure in the absence of that competition, someone — anyone can act to check the power of concentrated markets that suppress competition, raise prices, and deliver less than compelling service. Five years ago, Barack Obama promised change and a D.C. reset that would have ended “politics as usual.”

The art of the possible — changing the perception that consumer interests take a back seat to the whims of professional lobbyists at the FCC has proved less than successful after four years with Julius Genachowski. President Obama is not completely responsible, but it would be dishonest not to hold him to a promise he would deliver “change we can believe in.”

Instead, at the FCC, we got “change we think we might be able to get away with, maybe, or not.”

Julius Genachowski remained silent on the AT&T/T-Mobile merger until the Department of Justice provided him with political cover to oppose it. He caved on strongly enforcing Net Neutrality, refused to make important regulatory declarations that would have satisfied federal courts the FCC has a right to oversee broadband policy, and near the end of his tenure, hobnobbed with the cable industry and declared his support for usage billing and capped Internet.

Where Does Mr. Wheeler Stand?

(Image: MuniNetworks)

(Image: MuniNetworks)

So we must ask ourselves, where does Mr. Wheeler, a man who spent most of his career as a consummate cable and wireless industry lobbyist, fall on these issues?

The best place those of us who have not shared lunch with him can make that determination is in his personal blog. Harold wants us to downplay some of Wheeler’s words written during his six years of blogging:

But in the ten years I’ve been blogging, I know that I’ve said many things that do not necessary reflect what I would have done if I had been the ultimate decisionmaker – as I have said on more than one occasion (noting that actual decisionmakers are not advocates). Certainly anyone who reads ten years worth of Tales of the Sausage Factory (has it really been ten years?) will have an excellent sense of my overall priorities and approach. But I can’t swear that all approximately 500 or so blog posts could hold up today as being either accurate predictions (like Wheeler, I too was a big believer in WiMax) or final expressions of what I would have done as Chair of the FCC.

We certainly agree that Wheeler’s predictions of industry trends like WiMAX, in hindsight, are not deal breakers (although they should serve as reminders that one should avoid picking too many winners and losers). But at the same time, Wheeler’s words on policy matters in nearly 60 articles since 2007 should not be ignored, rationalized away, or dismissed either. In some sense, this is comparable to the vetting process for an appointee to the Supreme Court. To get a feel for the philosophy of an individual, both the White House and Congress pour over one’s writings and public opinions. Being asked to accept someone who can reshape public policy for years based on the personal recommendation of others only goes so far.

Many of Wheeler’s views are profoundly concerning, because they seem to betray a telecom industry conventional wisdom about the state of technology, wireless spectrum, regulation, and competition. His familiarity and comfort working within the paradigm of big cable and wireless is strongly contrasted with his suspicions and surprise regarding interlopers like Google and Apple — dubbed by Wheeler as part of a “Silicon Mafia.” We sense Wheeler seems most comfortable expecting to oversee business as usual, while advocating and accommodating some minor innovation here and there.

What is almost completely absent in most of Wheeler’s writings is the perspective of, or concern for ordinary consumers. What would Mr. and Mrs. Joe Average think about yet another consolidating merger between AT&T and one of its smaller competitors? What impact would another cable merger have on the bills paid by ordinary people in Colorado, Nebraska, or Pennsylvania? Is it good for consumers to advocate eliminating wireless network redundancy, as Wheeler does, after major events from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy to the recent Boston Marathon attack all reveal wireless networks are susceptible to call volume clogging and extended service outages?

Tom Wheeler is a long admirer of AT&T's top-lobbyist Jim Cicconi.

Tom Wheeler is an admirer of AT&T’s top-lobbyist Jim Cicconi.

More importantly, we are disturbed by Wheeler’s perspective about wired infrastructure that could have a major impact on the near future of rural telecommunications. Wheeler comes dangerously close to AT&T’s sentiments about its yesteryear rural landline network and its wish to switch those customers to wireless (with all the added costs, usage caps, and coverage issues). We cannot help but notice Wheeler frames the general issue much like AT&T does: an “evolution” that represents “weaning ourselves” from “the old wireline.” Ask yourself if AT&T is more or less comfortable knowing Mr. Wheeler’s attitudes about its wired telephone network. AT&T considers it an outdated money-loser and a nuisance in its rural service areas. Wireless is a license to print money, just as soon as the FCC and state regulators give the green light to go ahead. Is Wheeler to be the deciding vote?

We Don’t Believe Wheeler is an ‘Industry Plant’

Harold writes:

But while it is important to ask the right questions and give no one a free pass, it is equally important to evaluate the answers and the evidence fairly and accept their logical conclusions. The evidence that Wheeler would have approved the AT&T/T-Mobile merger had he actually been Chairman (rather than playing pundit) is pretty weak. To take that a step further and say that Wheeler’s justification for approving the merger as a means of reregulating the wireless industry was mere sham to hide his true sympathies seems to me exceedingly unjustified.

That mischaracterizes our sentiments about Mr. Wheeler. We do not believe he is some secret industry plant that is itching to deregulate the agency into a stupor. Nor do we believe a theoretical vote in favor of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger is evidence he is in AT&T’s back pocket specifically. Let us be clear: he served as a professional lobbyist for these companies for nearly 30 years. His job was to absorb and reflect the views of the nation’s biggest cable and phone companies both to politicians and regulators. Some remain friends and colleagues.

It is a safe bet most of the industry will welcome and celebrate Wheeler’s appointment. Many know him personally. Many others will feel safe that he is a reachable industry insider already familiar with the issues that concern them. This is what makes the D.C. revolving door so insidious. When you move from the regulated to the regulator (and back again), the only real outsiders are average consumers.

Here is an example of Wheeler admiring AT&T’s prowess in the early days of its attempted merger with T-Mobile. Notice how he characterizes the deal’s opponents:

“The most important times in any merger approval process are the first two weeks when the acquiring company gets to define the discussion and the last four weeks when the concerns raised by others and the analysis by the government congeals to define the issues to be negotiated in the final outcome. AT&T shot out of the blocks brilliantly, framing their action in terms of the spectrum shortage and President Obama’s desire to provide wireless broadband to rural areas. Over the coming months those who were caught by surprise, as well as those who would use the review process to gain their own advantages, will have organized to present their messages.”

Wheeler shows no evidence of being the FCC’s version of a game-changer like Elizabeth Warren. Instead, he’s an avowed admirer of AT&T’s top lobbyist Jim Cicconi. What will that difference mean? The New York Times, reporting more broadly on the problem of D.C.’s revolving door, provides some valuable clues:

Government officials and lobbyists agree that former agency officials have a much easier time getting phone calls or e-mail messages returned from their old colleagues, and that access often extends to greater credibility in arguing their clients’ positions.

One corporate lobbyist who worked as a regulator, asked whether he believed he had an inside edge in lobbying his ex-colleagues, said: “The answer is yes, it does. If it didn’t, I wouldn’t be able to justify getting out of bed in the morning and charging the outrageous fees that we charge our clients, which they willingly pay.”

The lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of concerns about alienating government officials, added that “you have to work at an agency to understand the culture and the pressure points, and it helps to know the senior staff.”

Not quite

Not quite

The most likely outcome of a Wheeler nomination is that he will be quickly approved, maintain the agency’s relatively low profile, and avoid rocking the boat too much. Even he doubts the power of the FCC to effect regulatory change unless those regulated volunteer to submit to more regulation. That means more quid pro quo agreements attached to mergers, acquisitions, and other deals the industry brings the FCC for approval. But as this quote illustrates, the industry remains in the driving seat:

“[…] Jim Cicconi sits astride a process that could determine the future of wireless policy, first for AT&T and then by extension for everyone else. Quite possibly the result of this merger decision will be far wider than the merger itself. At the end of the day we may be talking about a new era of wireless policy based on the Cicconi Commitment.”

Wheeler argued that the inability of the FCC to muster the political will to deal effectively with net neutrality and other broadband regulation made a consent decree around AT&T/T-Mobile the best way to update consumer protection rather than leave these services essentially unregulated.

Wheeler’s recognition of the inability of the FCC to get virtually anything done comes with no assurance he will do any better. Harold himself admits that the FCC’s track record of enforcement is “pathetic.” Has Wheeler written on his blog that he would seek to change that?

Wheeler’s reflections on the failed T-Mobile/AT&T merger present a clear sign he considers it a missed opportunity, with the usual voluntary divestiture of certain assets here and there with time limited pre-conditions that carry all the impact of one of those class action settlements that nets consumers a coupon or a $2 refund. Everybody but consumers walk away winners.

The Justice Department’s antitrust division, in contrast, illustrated the usefulness of a backbone when it quickly declared the merger proposal monstrously anti-consumer and anti-competitive and announced it would sue to stop it. Deal over and dead. When is the last time the FCC issued such a clear-cut, high-profile decision all on its own? Why is it so hard for the FCC to see the same anti-competitive nightmare so visible at the Department of Justice? Public Knowledge and other consumer groups saw the dangers from day one. Does Mr. Wheeler agree with the Justice Department or does he think he can do business with that shrewd AT&T lobbyist Jim Cicconi to get such deals approved the ‘right way?’

Our view remains the country and the Obama Administration could do far better choosing someone to lead the FCC that has not made a career lobbying for big cable and phone companies. If we want to solve America’s rural broadband problems, enforce fair billing practices and Net Neutrality, find new creative ways to utilize and distribute wireless spectrum, and promote competition while restricting industry consolidation, would we do better choosing an ex-industry lobbyist or an engineer, network planner, professional regulator, or an antitrust attorney?

President Obama went with the ex-lobbyist.

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