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J.D. Power & Associates Tie Vote! Hemorrhagic Fever vs. Comcast vs. Time Warner Cable

jd powerLove can be a fickle thing.

Take Comcast’s affair with J.D. Power & Associates, for example. In Comcast’s filings with regulators, it is very proud that J.D. Power cited Comcast for the most improvement of any cable operator scored by the survey firm. Comcast touted the fact it had managed to increase its TV satisfaction score by a whopping 92 points and Internet satisfaction was up a respectable 77 points. (Comcast didn’t mention the fact J.D. Power rates companies on a 1,000 point scale or that it took the cable company four years to eke out those improvements.)

Last month, J.D. Power issued its latest ranking of telecommunications companies and… well, the love is gone.

If customer alienation was an Olympic event, J.D. Power awarded tie gold medals to both Comcast and Time Warner Cable for their Kafkaesque race to the bottom.

The survey of customer satisfaction largely found only dissatisfaction everywhere in the country J.D. Power looked. While Comcast likes to cite its “customer-oopsies-gone-viral” blunders as “isolated incidents,” J.D. Power finds them epidemic nationwide.

skunkThe highest rating across television and broadband categories achieved by either cable company was ‘Meh.’ J.D. Power diplomatically scored both cable companies on a scale that started with “among the best” as simply “the rest.” Customers in the west were the most charitable, those in the south and eastern U.S. indicated they were worked to their last nerve.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director of telecommunications, in a statement.

Having competition available from a high-scoring provider also demonstrates what is possible when a company actually tries to care about customer service. In the same regions Comcast fared about as popular as hemorrhagic fever, WOW! Cable and Verizon FiOS easily took top honors. Even AT&T U-verse scored far higher than either cable company, primarily because AT&T offers very aggressive promotional packages that include a lot for a comparatively low price.

Other cable and smaller phone companies didn’t do particularly well either. Frontier and CenturyLink both earned dismal scores and Charter Cable only managed modest improvement. The two satellite television companies did fine in customer satisfaction for television service, but it was the two biggest phone companies that managed the best scores for Internet service. Among cable operators, only independents like WOW! (and to a lesser extent Cox) did well in the survey.

If J.D. Power is the arbiter of good service Comcast seems to claim it to be, the ratings company just sent a very clear message that when it comes to merging Comcast and Time Warner Cable, anything multiplied by zero is still zero.

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

J.D. Power ranking (Image courtesy: Reviewed.com)

Cox Cable’s Anachronistic World of Nonsense About Data Caps: Inventing New Ways to Bill You More

Cox is behind the times.

Cox is behind the times.

While the rest of the world is moving towards gigabit broadband and unlimited access, Cox Cable continues to live in the past with a regime of data caps the company blames on increased data usage. Your only solution is to upgrade to a bigger data plan you may not want or really need.

Somehow, the folks at Cox can’t seem to manage the natural growth of the Internet while start-ups ranging from Google Fiber to a local fiber provider just getting started in our own community goes out of their way to point out how unnecessary usage limits and usage billing really are.

At Stop the Cap!, we’ll let you in on a little secret the “tech wonder twins” at Cox forgot to mention: data caps are not about managing Internet traffic, they are about managing to control costs, protect cable-TV revenue, and eventually empty customers’ wallets.

Since data caps don’t make much sense in the 21st century reality-based community, Cox attempted a longer-form rationale for data caps in a video that resembles a bad VHS copy of an interrogation by your local homicide squad. Don’t worry, only the truth gets murdered by the ironically named “Tech Talk with Todd and Sarah.” Six minutes later, you still know they’re full of it.

Tip: Next time, bring “the tech.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Cox Tech Talk with Todd and Sarah Internet Usage Trends.mp4

What Cox still fails to understand (and what Google will have to teach them when they invade Cox’s biggest territories, including Phoenix) is that data caps and usage billing are as anachronistic as those 1978 limited edition Diana Prince/Wonder Woman glasses Sarah is still wearing. (6:17)

Los Angeles Has Accumulated $35 Million in Cable Franchise Fees It Has No Idea How to Spend

35-LACityView

Channel 35 is Los Angeles’ Government Access station

Los Angeles cable subscribers are paying $30-50 a year in extra franchise fees the city government has no idea what to do with, allowing a bank account dedicated to housing the unspent funds to reach $35 million and counting.

A new audit by the Office of the City Controller found no misappropriation or ethical lapses by the city government, but it did criticize the lack of long-term planning regarding how franchise revenue should be used, as well as lax auditing of expenses that were paid from the fund. Los Angeles City Controller Ron Galperin added the city’s lack of consistent auditing of the five major cable operators servicing greater Los Angeles may be allowing cable operators to charge customers franchise fees the companies are keeping for themselves. A 2006 law passed at the behest of Verizon and AT&T allowing statewide video franchise agreements in California isn’t helping either.

For decades, communities have been able to demand up to a 5% franchise fee from cable and phone companies offering video services in their areas in return for access to public rights-of-way and other public property. Most cities, including Los Angeles, have requested the maximum allowed – 5% of the provider’s gross annual revenue earned within the city. Cable operators retaliated by recouping the franchise fee by billing cable customers for it on a separate line on monthly cable bills.

In Los Angeles, 60% of all franchise fees ($31 million) paid are transferred to the city’s all-purpose General Fund, used for all types of city expenses. The remaining 40 percent ($12.4 million) is supposed to be earmarked for a Telecommunications Fund, but the city often raids that account as well. Time Warner Cable subscribers account for 85% of Los Angeles’ cable franchise revenue, AT&T U-verse contributes another 10% with other operators paying considerably less. Last year, Charter Cable wrote a check for less than $5,000, primarily because only a tiny part of the city of Los Angeles is served by Charter today.

So where is the excess money still in the account coming from?

fund balance

The Unintended Consequences of Statewide Video Franchising

Eight years ago, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 2987:  the “Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006” (DIVCA). In reality, DIVCA was just another statewide video franchise bill heavily pushed by the state’s dominant phone companies — AT&T and Verizon — to let them begin offering video services without having to sign franchise agreements with thousands of local governments across the state.

verizon attAT&T and Verizon sold the legislation to the public as a red-tape cutter to bring Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse to millions of Californians without unnecessary bureaucratic delay.

But lobbyists from both phone companies, as well as several cable companies, were successful in inserting their own amendments into the law that undercut their arguments for passing the legislation:

  • As local franchise agreements expired, companies took their franchise renewal business direct to the state, cutting off local oversight. Communities could no longer require operators to expand into rural areas or impose fines for sub-standard service;
  • Cable companies won the right to toss Public, Educational, and Government Access (PEG) channels out of their buildings. Many communities assigned responsibility for housing and operating PEG channels as part of their franchise agreement. DIVCA rendered those agreements void and unenforceable;
  • Cable companies no longer had to offer institutional broadband networks for free or at a discount to local governments, schools and libraries, and many existing networks were closed down as soon as the local franchise agreement expired and communities balked at the new prices charged by telecom companies.

But perhaps the most controversial amendment was language that gets AT&T and Verizon out of meeting obligations to build out their fiber networks where they choose not to built them, while still compelling smaller independent telephone companies to offer service to every customer within their telephone service area within a reasonable amount of time.

So instead of promoting a rush towards video competition, both AT&T and Verizon won concessions that let them cherry pick — on their own schedule — customers for AT&T U-verse and Verizon FiOS:

  • Verizon is in compliance with DIVCA as long as 25% of the households where service is available are low-income and within 5 years, Verizon increases that to at least 40%;
  • AT&T stays out of trouble with DIVCA by providing video service to 35% of low-income households where service is available. Within five years, AT&T must reach at least 50%.

One of the biggest victims of DIVCA are PEG channels which lost the sponsorship of the cable companies that used to underwrite them as part of their franchise agreements. American Community Television reported in California, Illinois and Indiana, where statewide video franchising laws were passed, cable operators that operated PEG channels closed the doors, sometimes with only 30 days notice. Even in states where PEG funding remained, channels have been exiled to Channel Siberia (eg. Channel 1,512) or are under constant threat of losing their channel if they don’t meet an operator’s arbitrary quality of programming criteria.

Time Warner Cable has moved PEG channels to digital service in a majority of their service areas, requiring many customers to have an added-cost cable box to watch.

To help Californian PEG services cope, a state law permitted cities to collect an extra 1% of gross revenue from cable operators to keep funding these channels. But if a city already collects a full 5% franchise fee, any money collected from PEG channels must only be spent on their operations — no raiding of funds allowed. If the local government thinks there are bigger priorities than supporting public, educational, and government access, the future of PEG channels is questionable.

How to Spend the Untouchable Proceeds

The new home of Los Angeles' Government Access channel

The new home of Los Angeles’ Government Access channel

With Los Angeles-area cable companies collecting and sending on the proceeds of the 1% PEG surcharge to city coffers, the money has been more or less just piling up over the last seven years, unspent.

As of the end of June last year, the city had squirreled away about $22 million collected from cable TV customers stashed in a non interest-bearing account. PEG operations across the United States are not known for being profligate spenders, relying on budgets that would be insufficient to keep the lights on at a typical local public television station. So some question whether Los Angeles’ Public Access, Educational Access, and Government Access networks need $22 million to continue operations.

The city has decided the Government Access channel — the one that airs council meetings and other political functions — does need a new home.  So the city is spending $20 million to completely renovate one of the oldest buildings in Los Angeles, the long-vacant three-story Merced Theater near Olvera Street.

When complete, the state-of-the-art digital facilities of Cityview Channel 35 may rival those of some commercial television stations in Los Angeles. The building will house a small performance venue on the first floor, a studio with space for a 70-person live audience, and plenty of office space on the third floor. What it evidently won’t have room for is the Public Access and Educational Access channels that make up the rest of the PEG trio. The new facility is for the exclusive use of Channel 35.

Local residents are happy someone is finally doing something with the theater, which has been empty and unused for at least 30 years. The project could also make Los Angeles’ Government Access channel one of the most capable in the country, producing high quality programming well beyond the ubiquitous city council meetings.

“Space for a live audience of about 70 people will allow us to engage the public with debates, town halls and other events that we weren’t able to do,” Mark Wolf, executive officer at the city Information Technology Agency, which oversees Channel 35, told Downtown News. “The venue also gives us a full upgrade to digital technology, as we’ve been operating in an analog environment.”

Downtown News partly misled its readers when it suggested cable providers are footing the bill for the renovated home of Channel 35. Although money from the city’s general fund won’t be used for the project, the money did originate from cable subscribers who have paid higher cable bills since 2007 because the city elected to collect a 1% PEG franchise fee.

Galperin

Galperin

Even after spending $20 million on the Merced Theater, the money from Time Warner Cable, Cox, AT&T, Verizon, and Charter cable TV subscribers will keep rolling in. The audit found that by the time the new Merced Theater facility opens in 2016, the city will again have between $21-25 million in unspent PEG funds.

Galperin thinks throwing more money at traditional PEG operations would be a mistake, particularly when younger audiences are not even subscribing to cable television.

“We’re in a new era,” Galperin said. “The old rules that envisioned everybody getting their programming from cable are changing before our very eyes. We are in a totally different era in terms of how people get their information, so much of viewership is on the Internet now, not necessarily on cable.”

Because PEG funds can only be spent on PEG operations, as a starting point, funds could be spent to build up what is now an anemic, barely functioning website for Channel 35. Although the channel does stream online, it is intermittent in our experience. Channel 35 might also partner with local public broadcasting and minority-interest channels in co-production ventures. It should also develop a robust on-demand library of its content for site visitors because that is increasingly how Americans choose to watch television.

Galperin suggested other uses including a public Wi-Fi network and city Internet sites for programming and other information, but these may stray outside of the boundaries of what is permissible under current California and federal law.

Of course, there is one other alternative – rescind the PEG fee altogether until there is a legitimate need to collect the money from already overburdened cable subscribers.

franchise fees

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Surviving DIVCA.mp4

Silicon Valley Community Television aired this lengthy conference last fall for the benefit of local governments across California still trying to make sense of the 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act, a provider-influenced piece of legislation that has tied the hands of most communities to manage their local telecommunications infrastructure for the good of their citizens. (2 hours, 47 minutes)

 

Competition Killer: Access to Time Warner Cable’s Business Fiber Network at Risk from Comcast Merger

comcast twcCompanies in the Pacific Coastal region of California are concerned about losing wholesale access to Time Warner Cable’s business fiber network if the cable company is acquired by Comcast.

Independent business communications providers acquire connectivity at wholesale rates from providers like Time Warner Cable and provide competition in the telecommunications marketplace.

“Time Warner Cable actually provides wholesale access, at least to its fiber network,” Dave Clark, president of Santa Barbara-based Impulse Advanced Communications, told the Pacific Coast Business Times. “From a competitive telecom perspective, they cooperate and work with competitive telecoms. Comcast does not. The big fear in the competitive telecom industry is that Comcast buys Time Warner and cuts [wholesale access] off.”

3 countiesCurrently, third-party access to cable broadband technology is provided on a voluntary basis by cable operators. Regulated telephone companies like Verizon and AT&T that serve California are required to offer open access to competitors, at least on their copper line networks.

If Comcast decides it won’t continue wholesale access to Time Warner’s network, it can cut off access almost immediately.

“The worst impact is going to be Ventura County, which has chunks of Time Warner,” Clark told the newspaper. “If Time Warner down there stops providing any wholesale access to facilities, those customers will be worse off. They’ll have fewer competitive options.”

Customers in Ventura, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara counties would see the number of cable providers serving the area cut in half, from four providers to two. Charter and Time Warner Cable customers would be transferred to Comcast. That’s a major development, because Comcast now only operates in a tiny area of Santa Maria and the Santa Ynez Valley. Now the company would be dominant in Ventura and San Luis Obispo counties. Cox would still serve its customers in the South Coast region.

The 5 Cable & Phone Companies Intentionally Sabotaging Your Use of the Internet

network_map-1024x459

Level 3’s global network: Orange lines represent Level 3-owned infrastructure, yellow lines show leased or co-owned connections.

Five of the largest Internet Service Providers in the country are intentionally sabotaging your use of the Internet by allowing their network connections to degrade unless they receive extra compensation from content companies they often directly compete with.

Mark Taylor, vice president of content and media for Level 3, wrote a lengthy primer on how Internet providers exchange traffic with each other across a vast global network. While clients of Level 3 are likely to have few problems exchanging traffic back and forth across Level 3’s global network, vital interconnections with other providers that make sure everyone can communicate with everyone else on the Internet are occasional trouble spots.

Every provider has different options to reach other providers, but favor those offering the most direct route possible to minimize “hops” between networks, which slow down the connection and increase the risk of service interruptions. These connections are often arranged through peering agreements. Level 3 has 51 peers, minimized in number to keep traffic moving as efficiently as possible.

This oversaturated port in Dallas cannot handle all the traffic trying to pass through it, so Internet packets are often dropped and traffic speeds are slowed.

This oversaturated port in Dallas cannot handle all the traffic trying to pass through it, so Internet packets are often dropped and traffic speeds are slowed.

Taylor writes most peering arrangements were informal agreements between engineers and did not involve any money changing hands. Today, 48 of the 51 Level 3 peering agreements don’t involve compensation. In fact, Level 3 refuses to pay “arbitrary charges to add interconnection capacity.” Taylor feels such upgrades are a matter of routine and are not costly for either party.

Peering agreements have been a very successful part of the Internet experience, even if end users remain completely in the dark about how Internet traffic moves around the world. In the view of many, customers don’t need to know and shouldn’t care, because their monthly Internet bill more than covers the cost of transporting data back and forth.

Because of ongoing upgrades the average utilization of Level 3’s connections is around 36 percent of capacity — busy enough to justify keeping the connection and providing spare capacity for days when Internet traffic explodes during breaking news or over the holidays.

csat-1024x635However, Taylor says more than a year ago, something suddenly changed at five U.S. Internet Service Providers. They stopped periodic upgrades and allowed some of their connections to become increasingly busy with traffic. Today, six of Level 3’s 51 peer connections are now 90 percent saturated with traffic for several hours a day, which causes traffic to degrade or get lost.

“[The] congestion [has become] permanent, has been in place for well over a year and [...] our peer refuses to augment capacity,” Taylor wrote. “They are deliberately harming the service they deliver to their paying customers. They are not allowing us to fulfill the requests their customers make for content.”

Taylor adds all but one of the affected connections are U.S. consumer broadband networks with a dominant or exclusive market share. Where competition exists, no provider allows their Internet connections to degrade, said Taylor.

Taylor won’t directly name the offenders, but he left an easy-to-follow trail:

“The companies with the congested peering interconnects also happen to rank dead last in customer satisfaction across all industries in the U.S.,” Taylor wrote. “Not only dead last, but by a massive statistical margin of almost three standard deviations.”

Taylor footnotes the source for his rankings, the American Consumer Satisfaction Index. The five worse providers listed for consumer satisfaction:

  • Comcast
  • Time Warner Cable
  • Charter Communications
  • Cox Communications
  • Verizon

AT&T has also made noises about insisting on compensation for its own network upgrades, blaming Netflix traffic.

level3In fact, Netflix traffic seems to be a common point of contention among Internet Service Providers that also sell their own television packages. They now insist the streaming video provider establish direct, paid connections with their networks. Level 3 is affected because it carries a substantial amount of traffic on behalf of Netflix.

Ultimately, the debate is about who pays for network upgrades to keep up with traffic growth. Taylor says Level 3’s cost to add an extra 10Gbps port would be between $10-20 thousand dollars, spare change for multi-billion dollar Americans cable and phone companies. Normally, competition would never allow a traffic dispute like this interfere with a customer’s usage experience. Angry customers would simply switch providers. But the lack of competition prevents this from happening in the United States, leaving customers in the middle.

This leaves Taylor with a question: “Shouldn’t a broadband consumer network with near monopoly control over their customers be expected, if not obligated, to deliver a better experience than this?”

Flippity Floppity: Cox Promises Gigabit Speeds to Meet Customer Demand It Dismissed Last Year

Phillip Dampier April 30, 2014 Broadband Speed, Competition, Cox, Online Video, Video 1 Comment

coxCox Communications Inc., the third-largest U.S. cable company, will offer gigabit broadband to residential customers later this year when it begins deploying DOCSIS 3.1 technology across its footprint.

“We’re working on our road map now to bring gigabit speeds to customers this year,” Pat Esser, the president and chief executive officer of Cox, said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Betty Liu at the Cable Show in Los Angeles. Cox customers have asked for faster speeds, he said.

The gigabit speed upgrade is a significant flip-flop for Cox Communications, which last year dismissed the demand for super-fast Internet speeds, suggested they were unnecessary for residential customers and too expensive to offer.

“It would cost multiple billions” to upgrade Cox’s network to offer gigabit speeds to all its customers, Esser said in January 2013. Now Esser tells Bloomberg the estimated cost is closer to “hundreds of millions of dollars to build.”

gigabitThe leveling off of video subscriptions has made broadband a critical part of Cox’s ongoing business plan. Esser claims Cox will adapt its business network infrastructure to introduce gigabit service to residential customers in some cities.

Last November, Cox’s chief technology officer Kevin Hart told FierceCable’s Steve Donohue that DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades will be able to handle gigabit speeds without difficulty after analog television channels are switched to digital service.

“We have a five-year roadmap in terms of our video architecture–what we’re doing from an analog-to-digital conversion to free up spectrum on the network for broadband growth,” Hart said. “We’re freeing up spectrum, building out node-splits and then aligning with the [DOCSIS] 3.1 roadmap for 1-gigabit speeds.”

Cable operators are increasingly changing their tune about offering faster speed Internet since Google Fiber arrived on the scene. Recent announcements that Google was planning a major expansion of fiber to the home service in multiple cities around the country has brought a flurry of often vague commitments for expanded fiber networks, particularly from AT&T.

Privately held Cox has maintained a low profile about speed hikes and network upgrades until now. Cox has about six million residential and business customers, with most choosing speeds up to 25Mbps. Esser offered no details about pricing or availability and Hart told an audience at the Los Angeles Cable Show this week Cox was still concentrating on expanding availability of 150-200Mbps service across its footprint. With that in mind, it is unlikely Cox will introduce gigabit service on a widely available basis this year.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Cox Plans Faster Internet to Challenge Google Video 4-30-14.flv

Bloomberg’s Betty Liu talks with Cox CEO Pat Esser about the cable company’s plans for gigabit broadband speeds coming later this year. (2:30)

Outbid, Charter Expected to Eye Consolation Prizes: Cox, Bright House, and/or Suddenlink

brighthouse_logoBright House Networks’ long standing relationship with Time Warner Cable — which negotiated programming deals on behalf of the smaller cable operator with operations in the south — may come to an end with an approval of a merger between Comcast and Time Warner. That could make Bright House a prime candidate for a takeover.

Charter Communications is likely to seek consolation prizes now that Comcast has outbid the smaller cable company for Time Warner Cable. Liberty Media’s John Malone and Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge are meeting with advisers and board members to discuss where Charter will go next to grow its operations.

Malone and Rutledge believe the cable industry must consolidate to better position it against competition from online video, phone companies, and satellite television. Malone would like to see the United States served by just a few cable operators, and feels acquisitions are the best way to accomplish his vision.

suddenlink logoCharter is almost certain to buy at least some of the three million Time Warner Cable customers Comcast intends to cast-off if it wins regulator approval of its buyout deal. But Team Charter has assembled enough financing to go much farther than that.

Among the most likely targets, according to CRT Capital Group and Raymond James Financial are family held Cox Communications, the third largest cable operator in the country with more than four million customers, Bright House Networks, the tenth largest operator with just over two million customers, and Suddenlink Communications and its 1.4 million subscribers.

COX_RES_RGBCox, like Cablevision, has been closely controlled by its founding family for years, so rumors of sales of one or both have never come to fruition. But with the merger announcement of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, Wall Street pressure to consolidate is growing by the day. There is talk that if Comcast succeeds in its buyout effort, even satellite providers like DirecTV and DISH are likely to seek a merger. Even Cablevision, which serves suburban New York City may finally feel enough pressure to sell.

A Cox spokesperson this week continued to insist the company is not for sale, but money often has a way of changing minds, if there is enough of it on the table.

Other small regional operators also likely to be approached about selling include: MidContinent, Mediacom, and Cable ONE.

Kansas’ Senate Commerce Committee Members Well-Compensated by Big Telecom

lobbyist-cashThe Kansas State Legislature website makes it very difficult to find exactly who wrote and introduced Senate Bill 304, the laughingly titled, “Municipal Communication’s Network and Private Telecommunications Investment Safeguards Act.

In fact, the bill should be titled, “The Big Telecom Duopoly Protection Act,” because it makes it almost impossible for any publicly owned network to get off the ground and compete in the state of Kansas, even in places where the nearest cable or DSL connection is dozens of miles away.

Instead of naming names, the legislature’s website prefers to show the bill introduced by the Committee on Commerce, sponsored by the Committee on Commerce, and referred to the Committee on Commerce for further consideration. Since they apparently wrote and co-sponsored the bill, we don’t expect it will take them too long to rubber stamp their approval.

The Republican-dominated members of the committee are already well-acquainted with the state’s largest cable and phone companies, as their campaign donations from 2012 illustrate:

  • Sen. Julia Lynn (R), Chairperson: AT&T ($1,750), Comcast ($1,500), CenturyLink ($1,000);
  • Sen. Susan Wagle (R), Vice-Chair: Cox Communications ($1,750), AT&T ($1,500), Kansas Cable Telecommunication Association ($1,250), Comcast ($1,000), CenturyLink ($1,000);
  • Sen. Tom Holland (D), Ranking Member: AT&T ($1,000);
  • Sen. Pat Apple (R): AT&T ($1,000), Comcast ($1,000), Kansas Cable Telecommunication Association ($250), Time Warner Cable ($250), Verizon ($250), CenturyLink ($250);
  • Sen. Jim Denning (R): CenturyLink ($250);
  • Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau (D): AT&T ($1,000), Cox Communications ($1000), Kansas Cable Telecommunication Association ($250);
  • Sen. Jeff Longbine (R): AT&T ($2,000), CenturyLink ($1,750), Cox Communications ($500);
  • Sen. Jeff Melcher (R): CenturyLink ($1,000);
  • Sen. Robert Olson (R): AT&T ($1,750), Comcast ($1,500), CenturyLink ($1,250), Cox Communications ($750);
  • Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R): Comcast ($1,000).

Data: Project Vote Smart, 1/30/2014

Anti-Community Broadband Bill Introduced in Kansas; Legislating Incumbent Protection

What company is behind the effort to ban municipal broadband in kansas.

AT&T is a frequent backer of anti-community broadband initiatives, as are some of the nation’s biggest cable companies.

The Kansas Senate’s Commerce Committee has introduced a bill that would make it next to impossible to build publicly owned community broadband networks that could potentially compete against the state’s largest cable and phone companies.

Senate Bill 304 is the latest in a series of measures introduced in state legislatures across the country to limit or prohibit local communities from building better broadband networks that large commercial providers refuse to offer.

SB 304 is among the most protectionist around, going well beyond the model bill produced by the corporate-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). At its heart, the bill bans just about any would-be competitor that works with, is run by, or backed by a local municipality:

Sec. 4. Except with regard to unserved areas, a municipality may not, directly or indirectly offer or provide to one or more subscribers, video, telecommunications or broadband service; or purchase, lease, construct, maintain or operate any facility for the purpose of enabling a private business or entity to offer, provide, carry, or deliver video, telecommunications or broadband service to one or more subscribers.

For purposes of this act, a municipality offers or provides video, telecommunications or broadband service if the municipality offers or provides the service:

  • Directly or indirectly, including through an authority or instrumentality:
  • Acting on behalf of the municipality; or for the benefit of the municipality;
  • by itself;
  • through a partnership, joint venture or other entity in which the municipality participates; or
  • by contract, resale or otherwise.
Tribune, Kansas is the county seat of Greeley County.

Tribune, Kansas is the county seat of Greeley County.

This language effectively prohibits just about everything from municipally owned broadband networks, public-private partnerships, buying an existing cable or phone company to improve service, allowing municipal utilities to establish broadband through an independent authority, or even contracting with a private company to offer service where none exists.

The proposed legislation falls far short of its intended goals to:

  • Ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are provided through fair competition;
  • Provide the widest possible diversity of sources of information, news and entertainment to the general public;
  • Encourage the development and widespread use of technological advances in providing video, telecommunications and broadband services at competitive rates and,
  • Ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are each provided within a consistent, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory federal, state and local government framework.

Proponents claim the bill is open to allowing municipalities to build broadband services in “unserved areas.” But upon closer inspection, the bill’s definition of “unserved” is practically impossible to meet anywhere in Kansas:

“Unserved area” means one or more contiguous census blocks within the legal boundaries of a municipality seeking to provide the unserved area with video, telecommunications or broadband service, where at least nine out of 10 households lack access to facilities-based, terrestrial broadband service, either fixed or mobile, or satellite broadband service, at the minimum broadband transmission speed as defined by the FCC.

Even the FCC does not consider satellite broadband service when it draws maps where broadband is unavailable. But this Big Telecom-backed bill does. Even worse, it requires would-be providers to prove that 90 percent of customers within a “census block” don’t have access to either mobile or satellite broadband. Since satellite Internet access is available to anyone with a view of the southern sky, and the most likely unserved customers would be in rural areas, it would be next to impossible for any part of the notoriously flat and wide open state to qualify as “unserved.”

Each rectangle represents one census block within one census tract that partially covers Greeley County. Under the proposed legislation, a community provider would have to visit every census block to verify whether a private company is capable of providing service, including satellite Internet access.

Each rectangle represents one “census block” within a larger “census tract” that partially covers Greeley County. Under the proposed legislation, a community provider would have to visit each census block to verify whether a private company is capable of providing broadband service, including satellite Internet access.

To illustrate, Stop the Cap! looked at Greeley County in western Kansas. The county’s total population? 1,247 — the smallest in the state. Assume Greeley County Broadband, a fictional municipal provider, wanted to launch fiber broadband service in the area. Under the proposed bill, the largest potential customer base is 1,247 — too small for most private providers. Still, if a private company decided to wire up the county, it could with few impediments, assuming investors were willing to wait for a return on their investment in the rural county. If SB 304 became law, a publicly owned broadband network would have to do much more before a single cable could be installed on a utility pole.

Census Block 958100-1-075, in downtown Tribune, has a population of 10.

Census Block 958100-1-075, in downtown Tribune, has a population of 10.

To open for business, Greeley County Broadband would have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to independently verify its intended service area — the county — is unserved by any existing broadband technology, including satellite and mobile broadband. The authors of the bill intentionally make that difficult. Just one census tract in Greeley County (#9561), encompassing the county seat town of Tribune (pop. 741) has dozens of census blocks. Some are populated, others are not.

Greeley County Broadband now has several big problems. Under the language in the bill, a municipal provider must first define its service area entirely within its borders — in this case Greeley County — and base it on contiguous census blocks. That means if pockets of qualifying potential customers exist in a census block surrounded by non-qualifying census blocks, Greeley County Broadband cannot include them in its service area.

Census Block 958100-1-075 — essentially at the intersection of Broadway Ave. and West Harper St., right next to City Hall — has a population of 10. AT&T Mobility’s coverage maps show Tribune is covered by its 3G wireless data network (but not 4G). That census block, along with every other in the area, would be disqualified from getting municipal broadband the moment AT&T upgrades to 4G service, whether reception is great or not. It doesn’t matter that customers will have to pay around $60 for a handful of gigabytes a month.

But wait, Verizon Wireless declares it already provides 4G LTE service across Greeley County (and almost all Kansas). So Greeley County Broadband, among other would-be providers, are out of business before even launching. Assuming there was no 4G service, if just two of those ten residents had a clear view to any satellite broadband provider, Greeley County Broadband would not be permitted to provide anyone in the census block with service under the proposed law. Under these restrictions, no municipal provider could write a tenable business plan, starved of potential customers.

Kansans need to consider whether that is “fair competition” or corporate protectionism. Is it a level playing field to restrict one provider without restricting others? If competition promotes investment in technologically challenged rural Kansas, would not more competition from municipal providers force private companies to finally upgrade their networks to compete?

In fact, the bill introduced this week protects incumbent cable and phone companies from competition and upgrades by keeping out the only likely competition most Kansans will ever see beyond AT&T, Comcast, or CenturyLink’s comfortable duopoly – a municipal or community-owned broadband alternative. Providing the widest possible diversity is impossible in a bill that features the widest possible definition of conditions that will keep new entrants out of the market. Community-owned networks usually offer superior technology (often fiber optics) in communities that are usually trapped with the most basic, outdated services. While the Kansas legislature coddles AT&T, that same company wants to mothball its rural landline network pushing broadband-starved customers to prohibitively expensive, usage capped wireless broadband service indefinitely.

verizon 4g

Seeing Big Red? The areas colored dark red represent the claimed coverage of Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE network in Kansas. Under SB 304, these areas would be prohibited from having a community-owned broadband alternative.

Staking the Heart of the Power-Sucking Vampire Cable Box

vampire-power-1-10964134Two years after energy conservation groups revealed many television set-top boxes use almost as much electricity as a typical refrigerator, a voluntary agreement has been reached to cut the energy use of the devices 10-45 percent by 2017.

The Department of Energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the Appliance Standards Awareness Project, the Consumer Electronics Association, and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association agreed to new energy efficiency standards for cable boxes expected to save more than $1 billion in electricity annually, once the new equipment is widely deployed in American homes. That represents enough energy to power 700,000 homes and cut five million tons of CO2 emissions each year.

“These energy efficiency standards reflect a collaborative approach among the Energy Department, the pay-TV industry and energy efficiency groups – building on more than three decades of common-sense efficiency standards that are saving American families and businesses hundreds of billions of dollars,” said Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz. “The set-top box efficiency standards will save families money by saving energy, while delivering high quality appliances for consumers that keep pace with technological innovation.”

DVR boxes are the biggest culprits. American DVRs typically use up to 50W regardless of whether someone is watching the TV or not. Most contain hard drives that are either powered on continuously or are shifted into an idle state that does more to protect the life of the drive than cut a consumer’s energy bill. A combination of a DVR and an extra HD set-top box together consume more electricity than an ENERGY STAR-qualified refrigerator-freezer, even when using the remote control to switch the boxes off.

NRDC Set-Top Boxes  Other Appliances-thumb-500x548-3135

Manufacturers were never pressed to produce more energy-efficient equipment by the cable and satellite television industry. Current generation boxes often require lengthy start-up cycles to configure channel lineups, load channel listings, receive authorization data and update software. As a result, any overnight power-down would inconvenience customers the following morning — waiting up to five or more minutes to begin watching television as equipment was switched back on. As a compromise, many cable operators instruct their DVR boxes to power down internal hard drives when not recording or playing back programming, minimizing subscriber inconvenience, but also the possible power savings.

In Europe, many set-top boxes are configured with three levels of power consumption — 22.5W while in use, 13.2W while in standby, and 0.65W when in “Deep Sleep” mode. More data is stored in non-volatile memory within the box, meaning channel data, program listings, and authorization information need not be re-downloaded each time the box is powered on, resulting in much faster recovery from power-saving modes.

The new agreement, which runs through 2017, covers all types of set-top boxes from pay-TV providers, including cable, satellite and telephone companies. The agreement also requires the pay-TV industry to publicly report model-specific set-top box energy use and requires an annual audit of service providers by an independent auditor to make sure boxes are performing at the efficiency levels specified in the agreement. The Energy Department also retains its authority to test set-top boxes under the ENERGY STAR verification program, which provides another verification tool to measure the efficiency of set-top boxes.

Comcast, DirecTV, DISH Network, Time Warner Cable, AT&T, Verizon, Cox Communications, Charter Communications, Cablevision, Bright House Networks and CenturyLink will begin deploying new energy-efficient equipment during service calls. Some customers may be able to eventually swap equipment earlier, depending on the company.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WCCO Minneapolis Check Your Cable Box 6-27-11.mp4

WCCO in Minneapolis reported in 2011 cable operators like Comcast may make subscribers wait 30 minutes or more for set-top box features to become fully available for use after plugging the box in. (1:50)

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