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Cable Industry’s Profitable Money Party Under Threat As Net Neutrality, FCC Oversight Looms

Moffett

Moffett

Nearly 20 years after the 1996 Telecom Act deregulated much of the cable industry, the renewed threat of increased consumer protection and oversight by the Federal Communications Commission and the dwindling chance regulators will approve the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable has increased pessimism about guaranteed high cable industry profits on Wall Street.

Craig Moffett, senior analyst at MoffettNathanson has departed from his usual optimism about the prospects of cable industry stocks and downgraded Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications this morning to “neutral,” suggesting the Title II reclassification of broadband could eventually lead to FCC mandated price cuts on broadband after the agency finalizes Net Neutrality regulations.

The cable industry had maintained high hopes for the Republican majority in Congress to trample Net Neutrality and allow the cable industry to continue boosting rates and introducing other pricing schemes including usage-based billing, but Moffett has grown increasingly convinced Republicans cannot override President Obama’s veto power if Congress attempts to change or end FCC oversight over the broadband business.

The cable industry has grown increasingly panicked over a new spirit of activism inside the FCC, particularly after FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler began asserting their “worst-case scenarios” for broadband speed and Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association has warned Net Neutrality and Title II would stifle innovation. But Moffett fears it will more likely stifle profits.

money“It would be naïve to suggest that the implication of Title II, particularly when viewed in the context of the FCC’s repeated findings that the broadband market is non-competitive, doesn’t introduce a real risk of price regulation,” Moffett wrote. “Not tomorrow, of course, so yes, near term numbers won’t change. But terminal growth rate assumptions need to be lowered. Multiples will have to come down.”

Moffett, who had been optimistic about the likely approval of the merger deal between Comcast and Time Warner Cable is much less so today.

His earlier 70-30 odds in favor of the merger are now down to 60-40. The headwind of negative press and the reclassification of broadband to a minimum speed of 25Mbps poses considerable risk the deal will be ruled anti-competitive.

Moffett claims the cable industry was also banking on jacking up prices for Internet access, already a very profitable service, to cover reduced profits from cable television. But now the FCC will be watching.

“In the past, changes to broadband pricing would have been the natural remedy,” Moffett said. “That avenue may be no longer open.”

Enjoy Better: Maine Lawmakers Slumming in the Off-Season at Maine Resort, Sponsored by Time Warner Cable

inn by the sea

Welcome to Inn by the Sea, where relaxed coastal luxury comes naturally.

Come for the unpretentious elegance, but don’t stay for the broadband.

Time Warner Cable’s war on competitive broadband in the state of Maine tastes delicious, if you are a lawmaker who enjoys a $26 herb marinated skirt steak with roasted mushrooms, chimichurri, piquillo aioli, and herbed hand cut steak fries in the dining room of the Cape Elizabeth seaside resort Inn by the Sea. Time Warner Cable (and you) picked up the tab, and for those lawmakers too full to drive, the cable company was ready with complimentary rooms at the Inn that retail off-season for $205-355 a night.

twcWelcome to the 2015 Time Warner Cable Winter Policy Conference, held Jan 22-23 at the remodeled resort and spa where a stay during the summer can cost $500 a day.

Thursday night’s dinner was followed by an all-day information lobbying event Friday — a workday when Maine lawmakers would normally be expected to serve the public interest, but served Time Warner Cable’s instead.

The overall theme of the conference: Defending Time Warner Cable’s performance in Maine and why letting community-owned providers compete with them is a really bad idea.

While lawmakers enjoyed complimentary access to the Inn by Sea’s high-speed Wi-Fi connection, Internet service around the rest of Cape Elizabeth is considerably less sublime, with Angie’s List reporting only 23 percent of the locals consider their broadband provider reliable. Maine itself is ranked 49th out of 50 states for quality of service and availability and no steak dinner will convince honest lawmakers the state is prepared with robust broadband required for the 21st century digital economy. Several members have introduced various measures to aid communities trying to move beyond DSL provided by FairPoint Communications and up to 50Mbps broadband from Time Warner Cable.

SWFIMG_080723_15590228_5EG1FThe thought of competition is enough to give any cable lobbyist indigestion, especially if the new entrant provides fiber to the home service, something almost unknown among commercial providers in Maine.

Lawmakers caught attending the shindig claimed they attended the “educational forum” to become informed.

But a review of the presenter list suggests this was hardly a 60 Minutes/Edward R. Murrow moment. Lawmakers may not have been aware the presentations were about as balanced as a program length commercial:

  • Moderator (Session 1): Jadz Janucik, National Cable & Telecommunication Association – The NCTA is the nation’s largest cable industry lobbying group;
  • Dave Thomas, Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP: A corporate attorney representing cable companies, particularly when they face competitive threats;
  • Lisa Schoenthaler, National Cable & Telecommunication Association;
  • Moderator (Session 2): Charlie Williams, Time Warner Cable;
  • Charles Davidson and Michael Santorelli from the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School. Both have received direct compensation from Time Warner Cable for their  “research” reports and are very active and frequent defenders of Time Warner Cable’s public policy agenda;
  • Joe Gillan, Gillan Associates – an economist working under paid contract with the cable industry;
  • Moderator (Session 3): Tom Federle, Federle Law: Chief lobbyist for Time Warner Cable in Maine for over seven years;
  • Robin Casey, Enockever LLP: Casey is one of the nation’s pre-eminent cable industry lawyers, called by the Texas Cable Association “the authority on the telecom industry;”
  • Mary Ellen Fitzgerald, Critical Insights: A Maine pollster hired by Time Warner Cable to carry out the company’s carefully worded survey on broadband issues;
  • Moderator (Session 5): Melinda Poore, senior vice president of governmental relations, Time Warner Cable Maine.

spa lobby“If we want good public policy, there’s reason for all of us to be worried,” utilities expert Gordon Weil, the state’s first Public Advocate, who represented the interests of ratepayers before regulators, told the Maine Center for Public Integrity. Such treatment of legislators is “obviously intended to persuade them by more than the validity of the arguments; it’s intended to persuade by the reception they’re given.”

That sentiment was echoed in a glowing review from a Time Warner colleague given to Tom Federle, the company’s top lobbyist.

“Tom has been the primary lobbyist for Time Warner Cable’s Maine operations for the past seven years,” said Melinda Poole, an executive vice president for governmental relations at Time Warner Cable. “He has a real knack for distilling complex issues for policy makers, has always been able to advance our positions effectively, and consistently has outperformed for us. Tom is well respected by legislators on both sides of the aisle.”

Lawmakers contacted by the Maine Center for Public Integrity seemed to sidestep or downplay the ethical issues of attending the company-sponsored event.

“I think this idea of meals and conversations is how Augusta functions on some level,” said Rep. Mark Dion (D-Portland), who attended the event in Cape Elizabeth, did not stay overnight but was provided dinner and breakfast by Time Warner.

Sen. Andre Cushing (R-Hampden), for whom Time Warner paid the cost of meals and the room, said he thought “about a dozen” legislators attended the Thursday night dinner. Dion said “30 or 35″ attended the second day’s sessions.

Partying-ExecsScott Pryzwansky, Time Warner Cable’s director of public relations for the eastern U.S., declined to answer any specific questions but replied by email: “As one of Maine’s leading employers and telecommunications companies, we designed this second biannual educational forum to help policymakers and others better understand some of the complex telecommunications issues confronting Maine and the nation.”

Critics contend such “educational” meetings held at posh locations where company lobbyists hand out free meals and room keys do more to obfuscate than clarify issues for lawmakers, who are likely to remember the accommodations and who provided them more than the seminar.

“I would have said, ‘Fine, if you want to meet with me, come meet on state facilities, no steak dinner,’ said Weil. “If steak dinners didn’t work, they wouldn’t give them steak dinners.”

Time Warner Cable’s two-day event included a packet of handouts, obtained by Stop the Cap!, that illustrate exactly how one-sided the affair was:

  • sock puppetA highly slanted (refuted here) presentation opposing “Government Operated Networks” (or GONs – a favorite acronym used by industry-funded think tanks to oppose municipal broadband) produced by the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute;
  • an NCTA-produced sheet opposing taxes on Internet access;
  • a Time Warner Cable-written summary of recent Maine Public Utility Commission conclusions about the availability of affordable telephone service;
  • a guest letter to the editor from Fred Campbell, who has a long history running industry-funded groups that are supposed to advocate for competition, except when an industry friend’s merger deal is on the line;
  • and a blog post from the Koch Brothers-funded corporate-friendly Reason.com.

The slanted push-poll part of the presentation was also unsurprisingly predictable.

“Do you approve or disapprove of the current practice of Maine’s government using tax dollars and fees on consumers to subsidize public entities to compete with private businesses?” asked one question.

Another asked if residents would favor “using taxpayer supported debt to build government-owned broadband networks,” ignoring the fact many projects are covered by bonds that carry little or no risk to taxpayers. Some profitable projects could even return money to local communities.

At least one lawmaker was quickly skeptical of the veracity of the company-sponsored poll.

State Rep. Sarah Gideon (D- Freeport) said some of the questions were “leading.”

“Nobody’s going to say ‘Yes, I want my state to incur debt,’” said Gideon. “We see lots of surveys as policymakers and we have to be smart enough to look at what questions are asked.”

Since 2008, Time Warner has donated more than $240,000 to Maine politicians: $127,360 to Democrats and Democratic PACs, and $113,250 to Republicans and Republican PACs. Most of the minor improvements in the state’s broadband rankings since 2013 come from community providers providing a quantum speed leap over traditional DSL and cable broadband services most Maine residents receive.

When Fiber Competition Arrives, Time Warner Cable Slashes Prices As Customers Call to Cancel

david-and-goliathThe day had finally arrived. After months watching construction crews work their way towards the house she and her boyfriend rent in Rochester, N.Y., Brenda Ververs called Time Warner Cable to cancel service. She thought it would take five minutes to dispense with a barely-tolerated relationship she has maintained with the cable company for nearly 20 years. Instead, she got a retention offer too good to dismiss out of hand.

Greenlight Networks, an East Rochester-based fiber overbuilder has been slowly expanding its footprint into a handful of neighborhoods in Rochester and its suburbs, providing 100/20Mbps service for $50 or 1,000/100Mbps for $250 a month. But only a fraction of area residents have heard of the company and even fewer qualify to sign up for their service.

“When the neighbors first saw their construction crews and we found out it was a company called Greenlight, we thought they were there to install red light traffic enforcement cameras,” Ververs said.

Greenlight uses a similar approach to Google Fiber, informally recruiting “fiberhoods” of potential customers. Once enough interest is shown, the company schedules fiber construction in the neighborhood.

But the process remains largely a mystery to many, because unlike Google, Greenlight does not update its website with neighborhood rankings or a detailed service map.

Time Warner Cable, Greenlight’s chief competitor, is well-aware of its fiber competition but considers it too minor to warrant any attention, at least until customers like Ververs call to cancel service.

Time Warner Cable’s national customer retention centers often confuse Greenlight Networks in Rochester, N.Y. with Greenlight, the larger municipally owned fiber to the home network in Wilson, N.C.

“They thought I was moving to North Carolina and was canceling service to start a new account down there, but they finally found Rochester’s Greenlight Networks in their system and went into a script about how Time Warner Cable was an established company and Greenlight was basically a fly-by-night operation that could fail any day,” said Ververs.

Other customers have told Stop the Cap! Time Warner alternates between recognizing Greenlight as a legitimate competitor worth their respect and one that cannot be trusted with your business. But the customer retention effort eventually ends up in the same place — offering customers drastic rate cuts to stay with the cable company.

Not what competition fans want to see: Greenlight's "Expansion Plans" web page is blank.

Not what competition fans want to see: Greenlight’s “Expansion Plans” web page is blank.

“They asked me why I would consider switching to Greenlight for $50 for 100Mbps broadband-only service when for $69 they will give me 50/5Mbps service, cable television, and phone service for two years,” Ververs said. “They emphasized it was less than $20 more for all three services from Time Warner vs. $50 for Internet-only service from Greenlight. They even promised a free upgrade to 100Mbps when it arrives in Rochester sometime this year.”

Some departing customers are also being offered modem fee waivers and free extras, like premium movie channels and expanded international free long distance calling.

Greenlight does not charge modem or franchise fees or hidden surcharges like regulatory recovery fees.

Behind the scenes, Time Warner Cable is also making an effort to lock up the most likely places a fiber overbuilder would want to expand service – multi-dwelling units that are less expensive to wire than single family homes.

Cable operators aggressively recruit apartment managers and neighborhood associations to sign contracts that include discounted service for every home, apartment or condo in a complex, usually offered as “included in the rent or neighborhood association fee.” Many contracts of this type give the cable company exclusive access to existing wiring, discouraging would-be competitors by requiring them to pay considerably higher construction costs to independently wire multi-dwelling units.

Readers also tell us Time Warner is offering departing customers the service improvement many wish they had all along, including a commitment to check and rewire customer homes for free if service quality is among the reasons a customer plans to cancel service. Some customers are also offered specialized customer service contact numbers normally available only to premium-class Signature Home customers. Still others are being given substantial bill credits or rebates if they agree to stay with the cable company.

Ververs hates Time Warner Cable service and the constant rate increases, but the $69 retention offer, apparently only available to customers in competitive areas, has kept them from making a final decision to switch to Greenlight.

“Greenlight doesn’t offer a video or telephone package — just broadband, and we cannot ignore the fact we used to pay Time Warner $160 and can now get three services and free HBO for almost $100 less than we were paying, less than $20 a month more than we would pay Greenlight, and Time Warner plans to match Greenlight’s 100Mbps speeds this year,” said Ververs.

Downtown Rochester, N.Y.

Downtown Rochester, N.Y.

But broadband-only customers are less impressed with Time Warner’s retention efforts in a community than has yet to see cable broadband speeds increase beyond 50Mbps.

Stop the Cap! reader Joseph Corriea writes his friend just signed up for Greenlight in the Highland Park area of Rochester and Time Warner immediately countered with an offer of Extreme Internet (30/5Mbps) for $39 a month. The deal breaker may have been the modem fee Time Warner didn’t offer to waive. Corriea’s friend left Time Warner for Greenlight and is happy with their flat $50 a month bill with no hidden gotcha fees.

Corriea wonders exactly how much bandwidth Time Warner Cable is withholding from barely competitive markets like Rochester.

The answer is plenty. Frontier Communications continues to lose an already meager broadband market share in areas of western New York wired for cable. The majority of its DSL customers only qualify for slowband speeds of 12Mbps or less and although the company recently claimed to have spent $9 million on upgrades in the area, many wonder where the money went.

“Frontier is a joke, they have always been a joke, and the only people doing business with them don’t know any better,” said Riga resident David Sobcek. “DSL is a dinosaur and although they claim faster speeds are available, it is very hit or miss to qualify for them and when the weather is bad, it’s a miss even if you did qualify. They locked my speed at a fraction of what they were selling and gave me nothing but excuses. Time Warner Cable has a monopoly for 99% of this area.”

Western New York is not on Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade list for 2015, which boosts speeds up to 300Mbps. Google has intentionally avoided fiber projects in the northeastern United States because Verizon (and its limited deployment of FiOS fiber) dominates the region, and Frontier Communications has no plans to upgrade cities like Rochester to fiber to the neighborhood service similar to AT&T U-verse.

For the foreseeable future, that leaves Rochester with David vs. Goliath competition – a multi-billion dollar cable company vs. a fiber upstart. But with Time Warner Cable carrying more customer dissatisfaction baggage than American Airlines, nobody should count Greenlight Networks out, especially when the biggest complaint about Greenlight is why it is taking so long to expand their service area.

Time Warner Cable Launches Maxx Upgrades in Dallas Metroplex; Launching Metrowide Wi-Fi for Its Customers

twc maxxTime Warner Cable customers in the Dallas Metroplex will soon see broadband speeds rise as high as 300Mbps as the company’s Maxx upgrade project arrives, bringing along a metropolitan-wide Wi-Fi network available at no charge to Time Warner Cable broadband customers.

The first noticeable presence of the Wi-Fi expansion will be found at area businesses as Time Warner recruits commercial broadband customers to host its hotspots. As spring arrives, the company will accelerate the installation of Wi-Fi antennas around the metropolitan region.

Home Maxx upgrades will deliver dramatically faster broadband speeds at no extra charge:

  • Standard 15Mbps service rises to 50/5Mbps;
  • Turbo is boosted from 20Mbps to 100/10Mbps;
  • Extreme increases from 30/5 to 200/20Mbps;
  • Ultimate, formerly 50/5 is increased to 300/20Mbps.

Existing customers will also be able to swap out their existing DVR boxes for a new Arris Enhanced DVR offering six tuners and a 1TB internal drive.

Because the conversion will drop analog channels, Time Warner Cable is offering free Digital Transport Adapters through April 21, 2016, as long as customers order the boxes by Aug 19. Many Time Warner Cable customers may end up avoiding charges for the DTA equipment even after that. Several packages from Time Warner waive the DTA fees.

The official list of metro Dallas locations getting the Maxx upgrade includes:

Addison, Allen, Arlington, Bedford, Carrollton, Cedar Hill, Cockrell Hill, Colleyville, Commerce, Coppell, Dallas, DeSoto, Double Oak, Euless, Farmers Branch, Farmersville, Flower Mound, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Greenville, Highland Village, Hutchins, Irving, Kennedale, Lancaster, Lewisville, McKinney, Mesquite, Murphy, Pantego, Plano, Princeton, Richardson, Rockwall, Rowlett, Sachse, St. Paul, Sunnyvale, The Colony and Wylie.

Dallas faces imminent competition from AT&T U-verse upgrades.

Wall Street Turning Against Comcast-Time Warner Merger: “We Believe It Will Be Blocked”

Greenfield

Greenfield

An important Wall Street analyst has publicly written what many have thought offline for the past six months — the chances of regulators approving a merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable are growing less and less each day that passes.

Rich Greenfield from BTIG Research has grown increasingly pessimistic about the odds of Comcast winning approval of its effort to buy Time Warner Cable.

Despite the unified view from the executive suites of both cable companies that the merger is a done-deal just waiting for pro forma paperwork to get handled by the FCC and Department of Justice, Greenfield has seen enough evidence to declare “the tide has turned against the cable monopoly in the past 12 months,” and now places the odds of a merger approval at 30 percent or less.

“Since we realized the inevitability of Title II regulation of broadband in December 2014, we have grown increasingly concerned that Comcast and Time Warner Cable will not be allowed to merge,” Greenfield wrote.

The claim from both cable companies that since Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not directly compete with each other, there in no basis on which the government could block the transaction, may become a moot point.

There are three factors that Greenfield believes will likely deliver a death-blow to the deal:

  • Monopsony Power
  • Broadband Market Share & Control
  • Aftershocks from the Net Neutrality Debate

btigMonopsony power is wielded when one very large buyer of a product or service becomes so important to the seller, it can dictate its own terms and win deals that no other competitor can secure for itself.

Comcast is already the nation’s largest cable operator. Time Warner Cable is second largest. One would have to combine most of the rest of the nation’s cable companies to create a force equally important to cable programming networks.

As Stop the Cap! testified last summer before the Public Service Commission in New York, allowing a merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable would secure the combined cable company volume discounts on cable programming that no other competitor could negotiate for itself. That would deter competition by preventing start-ups from entering the cable television marketplace because they would be at a severe disadvantage with higher wholesale programming expenses that would probably make their retail prices uncompetitive.

Even worse, large national cable programming distributors could dictate terms on what kinds of programming was available.

comcastbuy_400_241The FCC recognized the danger of monopsony market power and in the 1990s set a 30% maximum market share limit on the number of video customers one company could control nationally. That number was set slightly above the national market share held by the largest cable company at the time — first known as TCI, then AT&T Broadband, and today Comcast. Comcast sued the FCC claiming the cap was unconstitutional and won twice – first in 2001 when a federal court dismissed the rule as arbitrary and again in 2009 when it threw out the FCC’s revised effort.

Comcast itself recognized the 30% cap as an important bellwether for regulators watching the concentration of market power through mergers and acquisitions. When it agreed to buy Time Warner Cable, it volunteered to spin-off enough customers of the combined company to stay under the 30% (now voluntary) cap.

Greenfield argues the importance of concentration in the video programming marketplace has been overtaken by concerns about broadband.

“While Comcast tried to steer the government to evaluate the Time Warner deal on the old paradigm of video subscriber share, it is increasingly clear that DOJ and FCC approval/denial will come down to how they view the competitive landscape of broadband and whether greater broadband market share serves the public interest,” Greenfield wrote.

comcast whoppersIf the Comcast merger deal ultimately fails, the company may have only itself to blame.

Last year Comcast faced intense scrutiny over its interconnection agreements with companies that handle traffic for large content producers like Netflix. Comcast customers faced a deterioration in Netflix streaming quality after Comcast refused to upgrade certain connections to keep up with growing demand. Netflix was eventually forced to establish a direct paid connection agreement with the cable operator, despite the fact Netflix offers cable operators free equipment and connections for just that purpose.

That event poured gasoline on the smoldering debate over Net Neutrality and helped fuel support for a strong Open Internet policy that would give the FCC authority to check connection agreements and ban paid online fast lanes.

Seeing how Comcast affected broadband service for millions of subscribers across dozens of states could shift the debate away from any local impacts of the merger and refocus it on how many broadband customers across the country a single company should manage.

Comcast will control 50% or more of the national broadband market when applying the FCC’s newly defined definition of broadband: 25/3Mbps.

That rings antitrust and anticompetitive alarm bells for any regulator.

Greenfield notes that changing the definition of broadband will dramatically reshape market share. It will nearly eliminate DSL as a suitable competitor and leave Americans with a choice between cable broadband and Verizon FiOS, community owned fiber networks, Google, and a small part of AT&T’s U-verse footprint. If those competitors don’t exist in your community, you will have no choice at all.

cap comcastEven Comcast admits cable broadband enjoys a near-monopoly at 25/3Mbps speeds. controlling 89.7% of the market as of December 2013.

“If regulators take the ‘national’ approach to evaluating broadband competition, the FCC’s redefinition would appear to put the deal in even greater jeopardy,” Greenfield writes. “Beyond the market share of existing subscribers, the larger issue is availability.  Whether or not a current subscriber takes 25/3Mbps or better, the far more relevant question is if a consumer wanted that level of speed do they have a choice beyond their local cable operator?  As of year-end 2013, Comcast’s own filing illustrates that in 63% of their footprint post-Time Warner Cable, they were the only consumer choice for 25 Mbps broadband (we suspect even higher now).”

“With Comcast’s scale both before and especially after the Time Warner Cable transaction, they become ‘the only way’ for a majority of Americans to receive content/programming that requires a robust broadband connection,” Greenfield warned.

Even worse, to protect its video business, a super-sized Comcast will be tempted to introduce usage caps that will deliver a built-in advantage to its own services.

“Over time, the fear is that Comcast will favor its own IP-delivered video services versus third parties, similar to how it is able to offer Comcast IP-based video services as a ‘managed’ service that does not count against bandwidth caps, while third-party video services that look similar count against bandwidth caps,” he wrote. “The natural inclination will be for [Comcast] to protect their business (think usage based caps that only apply to outsiders, peering/interconnection fees, etc.)”

“With the overlay of the populist uprising driving government policy, it is hard to imagine how regulators could approve the Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction at this point,” Greenfield concludes. “Comcast continues to try to get the government to look to the past to get its deal approved.  But the framework is about not only what is current, but what the future will look like – especially in a rapidly changing broadband world.”

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