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Suddenlink Closing Call Centers, Adds New Paper Billing Fee

Phillip Dampier July 20, 2016 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Suddenlink 1 Comment

unemployedAltice’s ongoing efforts to cut expenses and boost profits at Suddenlink will cost an unspecified number of call center workers their jobs in three states and customers will soon pay a fee to receive their cable bill in the mail.

In three separate announcements, Suddenlink has begun notifying employees at three separate offices that many will be out of their jobs by this fall as the company shutters call centers and sales offices in Greenville, N.C., St. Joseph, Mo.,  and Parkersburg, W.V.

“We are migrating call center activities to some of Suddenlink’s larger call centers in the U.S. based on call volume, and where we have the greatest number of business partners,” said a company news release.

All of Suddenlink’s sales jobs will now be in Texas, and that means sales employees in the company’s Parkersburg office were given two choices: move to Texas, or take a different job in the Parkersburg office.

St. Joseph area employees were told their jobs will be relocated to larger call centers elsewhere where Altice has spent money to improve customer care.

“We have invested in advanced customer-care technology in those locations, and based on that believe this new structure will enable us to provide a superior service experience to all of our customers,” said Suddenlink spokeswoman Lisa Anselmo.

SuddenlinkLogo1-630x140This summer Suddenlink is also continuing incremental rate hikes for customers not already subject to them. Parts of North Carolina are the latest to face a new $1 billing fee, which began July 1. New customers already pay the fee, but now current customers will also face the extra charge if they want a paper statement mailed to them.

“This fee covers the handling and postage costs associated with providing a paper statement,” said spokesman Gene Regan, senior director of corporate communications.

Notification of the new fee went out in the company’s May and June billings. To avoid the fee, customers must opt-in to electronic billing by visiting the company’s paperless billing web page and logging in to their Suddenlink account.

“What we are finding is more and more people in recent months have gone to electronic billing. A lot of customers have made the change in recent months,” Regan told The Daily Reflector. “Today so many people are online, more and more people are online, and a lot of people don’t like to deal with paper mail. They like the convenience and the opportunity to use other ways to pay.”

August

August

But many customers would prefer the option of a lower cable TV bill.

In Louisiana, Lake Area residents continue to complain about Suddenlink’s business practices, especially rates, channel options, and equipment fees. City councilwoman Luvertha August told American Press she is inundated with complaints about the cost of cable television in particular.

“All of these comments are from senior citizens. They’re on fixed incomes and they have limited budgets,” August told the newspaper. “They’re concerned with what they deem are constant changes with the Suddenlink cable company.”

Seniors have been confronted with cable TV bills that have soared from $20 two decades ago to over $80 in many cases today. This month Suddenlink completed its all-digital transition in southern Louisiana, which requires customers to attach equipment to every cable-enabled television in the home, at an additional cost.

The Leichtman Research Group, which specializes in research on broadband media and entertainment, found today’s average cable-TV bill is just under $100 after fees, surcharges, and taxes are included. Seniors who have seen no significant increase in their Social Security checks for several years are hard-pressed to pay for channels they don’t want or watch.

Last year, August attempted to involve the state’s legislative delegation to coordinate a message that consumers want more options, including a-la-carte for cable television. Her effort found almost no interest from state and federal lawmakers representing Louisiana, many who receive substantial campaign contributions from telecom companies. Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) did respond, but falsely claimed cable television is a state matter and the “federal government had nothing to do with the issue.”

In fact, many members of Congress have asked the FCC to get involved in the issue and others have supported efforts to increase competition and push for mandatory a-la-carte channel choices for consumers. AT&T U-verse has a franchise in southern Louisiana and may offer some consumers a choice, but after AT&T completed its acquisition of DirecTV, many consumers report AT&T is marketing satellite television more aggressively than its own U-verse TV option.

Cable One: Your Price and Customer Service Depend on Your Credit Worthiness

Phillip Dampier June 29, 2016 Cable One, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

no-thanksFirst credit cards were tied to your credit score, then auto insurance, and now how much you pay for cable television and what kind of support you receive from customer service may also depend on your creditworthiness, at least at Cable One.

CEO Thomas Might ignited controversy over his remarks at a recent J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference when he told Wall Street analysts the company was working hard to reduce the “hollow profitability” of its cable TV business. Fierce Cable caught the transcript. One of the biggest reasons to blame for low profits may be Cable One’s deadbeat customers who don’t pay their bills. Starting in 2013, Might ordered a “very rigorous FICI credit scoring process” on all video customers to weed out the good from the bad.

Might suggested Cable One discovered those with low credit scores were among the company’s low value customers, and they deserve much less from the cable company in return.

“We don’t turn people away,” Might said, but the cable company’s technicians aren’t going to “spend 15 minutes setting up an iPhone app” for a customer who has a low FICO score. “What we found is that through lifestyle and billing analysis, we could start to pinpoint where churn and bad debt was coming from, and credit scoring started to be a really good test.”

cable oneCable One has even stopped direct marketing its cable service, even though it was winning nine percent of new customer sign-ups. The customers Cable One attracted were so low quality, Might claims the company didn’t make a penny from the marketing effort.

“It was the worst of the lifetime value segments we had,” Might said.

Cable One’s unwelcome credit challenged customers returned the favor and canceled their service in droves. Although bad debt is down 70 percent under the new credit check policy, Cable One has lost about half of their cable TV customers, most leaving for AT&T U-verse or satellite television.

Might

Might

Might’s intemperate remarks evidently triggered the company’s recent decision to contact the FCC to “clarify” the situation. Chief operating officer Julie Laulis tried to quell any controversy Cable One treats its customers differently based on how they handle their credit.

“Cable One runs a consumer credit pre-qualification, with the applicant’s consent, solely during the new customer sign-up process,” Laulis said. “The pre-qualification results are used to determine the size of the deposit and the installation charge, if any, that would be appropriate for the particular customer to offset the customer to offset the non-payment of bills or the non-return of equipment, as well as any introductory offers the customer may be eligible to receive.”

But once signed up, Laulis admitted the company still treats customers differently based on an internal scoring system it calls Lifetime Value (LTV), which determines what perks and special deals each customer is qualified to receive.

“Importantly, the LTV program has nothing at all to do with the use of credit scores,” Laulis added. “Any Cable One customer can, through a good payment history, achieve the highest LTV level and achieve additional levels of customer service and other benefits. This LTV level is independent of a credit score, and a credit score is not used to determine levels of service or loyalty rewards.”

Laulis claimed “the media” confused Might’s positions on credit scoring inside Cable One, although the cable company never asked for any corrections. Laulis also doesn’t deny the amount of customer service assistance available to customers may still depend on their creditworthiness.

Is Your Landlord Taking Kickbacks to Keep Better Internet Out of Your Building?

xfinity communitiesIs your cable television service included in your rent or condo “services” fee? Have you ever called another provider and told service was not available at your address even through others outside of your condo neighborhood or apartment complex can sign up for service today? Chances are your landlord or property management company is receiving a kickback to keep competition off the property, while you may be stuck paying for substandard services you neither want or need. Worst of all, chances are it’s all legal and everyone is getting a piece of the action… except you.

Welcome to the world of Multiple Dwelling Unit (MDU) Bulk Service Agreements, the seedy underbelly of the anti-competitive cable and telco-TV world. When cable TV first got going, most people wanted access. In the early days, cable franchises were typically exclusive and cable companies maintained the upper hand in negotiations with apartment owners and property owners. Since the service was in demand, many property owners were told to sign whatever “Right Of Entry” Agreement (ROE) was put in front of them. Most contained clauses that guaranteed that cable company would get exclusive access to the property for as long as it was given a franchise to operate within that community. In other words, basically forever.

This turned out very handy when competitors started showing up. First on the scene were satellite television providers, which had a rough time dealing with landlords who loathed tenants installing satellite dishes that “ruined the aesthetics” of the property. Many rental agreements still restrict satellite television dishes in ways that make their use untenable. But things got much more serious when Verizon and AT&T got into the cable business. Initially, both companies found extending FiOS and U-verse to some rental and gated communities was blocked by the exclusive agreements held by cable operators. By 2007, the FCC finally acted to forbid exclusive service contracts, but the cable industry and property developers have played cat and mouse games with the FCC’s loopholes ever since.

Property Developers, Management Companies, Landlords, and Homeowner Associations With Their Hands Out

att connectedWith the FCC’s 2007 declaration that exclusive contracts between cable companies and property owners were “null and void,” the power of the cable industry to negotiate on their terms was markedly diminished. Although many property owners applauded their new-found freedom to tell the local cable company to take a hike if they did not offer better service to their tenants, many others saw dollar signs in their eyes. With leverage now in the hands of the property owner, if the local cable company wanted to stay, in many cases it had to pay. Only the most brazen property owners kicked uncooperative cable companies off their properties, putting tenants at a serious inconvenience. Instead, many found life more peaceful and lucrative to stick with the existing cable company, signing a new contract for “bulk billing” tenants. On the surface, it seemed like a good deal. Property owners advertised that cable TV was included in the rent (and they paid a deeply discounted price per tenant) and the cable operator had a guaranteed number of customers, whether they wanted the service or not.

Bulk billing also proved a very effective deterrent for would-be competitors, who had to overcome the challenge of marketing their service while the tenant was already paying for another as part of their rent. As a result, telco TV competitors often stayed away from properties with bulk billing arrangements.

As broadband has become more prominent and threatens to become more important than the cable TV package, the cable industry has refined its weapons of non-competition. While they cannot force competitors off properties, they can make life very expensive for them. The latest generation of ROE agreements often grant access rights to the building’s telecommunications conduit, cabling, and equipment exclusively to the cable operator.

fiosIf Google Fiber, AT&T U-verse or Verizon FiOS sought to offer service on one of these properties, they would have to overcome the investment insanity of wiring each building with its own infrastructure, including duplicate cables, in separate conduits and spaces not already designated for the exclusive use of the cable company. Verizon in New York City has faced numerous obstacles wiring some buildings, including gaining access to the building itself. Intransigent on site employees, bureaucratic and unresponsive property management companies, and developers have all made life difficult for Verizon’s fiber upgrade.

AT&T often takes the approach “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” and offers its own bulk billing incentives, along with occasional commitments for fiber upgrades. Google Fiber can afford to skip places where it isn’t wanted, although with recent revelations that landlords can raise the rent by up to 11% with the arrival of Google Fiber alone, it may hurt to alienate that fiber to the home provider.

Kickbacks for New Developments = Windfall

Kickbacks for existing properties are lucrative, but nothing compared to the lucrative windfall new property developments can achieve with the right deal.

In 2013, one property developer in Maryland went all out for an exclusive deal with a provider that was going to get de facto exclusivity by using a convoluted series of entities and agreements designed to insulate the company from competition and a challenge from the FCC. A court later ruled the provider used an “elaborate game of regulatory subterfuge” using various corporate entities to escape potential competition.

Some lawyers devote a substantial amount of their practice to the issue of bulk contracts and ROE agreements. Carl Kandutsch serves clients nationwide, many trying to extricate themselves from bad deals of the past. In many cases, an attorney may be needed to find a way out of contracts that don’t meet FCC rules. Other communities sometimes have to buy out an existing contract. Many have to sit and suffer the consequences for years. One residential community found itself trapped with a service provider that was quietly protected by an “airtight contract” negotiated not with the property management company or the homeowner association, but the development’s original builder. The provider delivered lousy service and the community spent six years trying to get rid of the offending firm with no result until they hired an attorney. Although happy to be rid of the bad provider, the homeowner association ended up illustrating how pervasive this problem is after it signed a similar contract with another provider also handing out kickbacks.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter's cable bill to the landlord.

Comcast pays up to 10% of a renter’s cable bill to the landlord. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast is more creative than most. It calls its handouts: “Marketing Support Compensation.” The property owner gets an increasing reward for every tenant signed up for Comcast service. Once around two-thirds of tenants are subscribed, the owner gets up to a 10% take of each bill, plus a one time payment of up to $130 per tenant.

Because Comcast’s reputation often precedes it, customers reluctant to sign up without considering other providers will find that tougher to do because Comcast bans other providers from marketing their services to tenants with the support or cooperation of the landlord. In other words, no door hangers, free coffee, brochures in the lobby, or any other on-site promotions. In case a property owner forgets, Comcast sends reminders in the mail:

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Comcast likes to remind landlords it has an exclusive. (Image: Susan Crawford)

Susan Crawford calls it “astounding, enormous, decentralized payola” and claims it affects millions of renters.

Crawford

Crawford

“These shenanigans will only stop when cities and national leaders require that every building have neutral fiber/wireless facilities that make it easy for residents to switch services when they want to,” Crawford wrote. “We’ve got to take landlords out of the equation — all they’re doing is looking for payments and deals (understandably: they’re addicted to the revenue stream they’ve been getting), and the giant telecom providers in our country are more than happy to pay up. The market is stuck. Residents have little idea these deals are happening. The current way of doing business is great for landlords and ISPs but destructive in every other way.”

One real world example of how this deters competition comes from Webpass (recently acquired by Google), which offers gigabit Ethernet speeds in select MDUs in San Francisco, San Diego, Miami, Chicago, and Boston. The service comes with a low price, but that doesn’t get the company in the door, according to its president, Charles Barr.

Barr has been refused entry by multiple building owners who have agreements with Comcast, AT&T, or others.

“Tenants want us, but we can’t get in,” Barr said.

Crawford argues the FCC has once again been outmaneuvered by ISPs and their attorneys.

“Sure, a landlord can’t enter into an exclusive agreement granting just one ISP the right to provide Internet access service to an MDU, but a landlord can refuse to sign agreements with anyone other than Big Company X, in exchange for payments labeled in any one of a zillion ways,” added Crawford. “Exclusivity by any other name still feels just as abusive.”

This isn’t a new problem. Stop the Cap! first reported on these kinds of bulk buying arrangements back in 2010, all made possible by the FCC’s regulatory loopholes. Six years later, the problem appears to be getting worse.

AT&T’s King of Lobbyists Endorses Hillary Clinton for President

Cicconi

Cicconi

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first major overhaul of telecommunications law in almost 62 years, and the deregulation measure supported with ecstasy by many in the telecom industry was signed into law by none other than President Bill Clinton, opening the door to a massive wave of industry deregulation and multi-billion dollar media consolidation.

It therefore comes as no surprise — to some at least — that AT&T’s top lobbyist Jim Cicconi, perhaps rivaled only by Comcast’s David Cohen in power and influence, has endorsed Hillary Clinton for president. The Wall Street Journal reported Cicconi has joined several other Republican corporate executives signing up for Team Hillary this election cycle.

Cicconi is voting Democratic this year, despite supporting every Republican presidential candidate since President Gerald Ford’s run against Jimmy Carter in 1976. This year is different, he claims.

hillary 2016“I think it’s vital to put our country’s well being ahead of party,” he said in a statement provided by the Clinton campaign. “Hillary Clinton is experienced, qualified, and will make a fine president. The alternative, I fear, would set our nation on a very dark path.”

Comcast’s David Cohen is also well-known for leaning to the left, and has been considered a friend of the Obamas since they took office in 2009. Cohen hosted 120 people in his home for a dinner in 2011 on behalf of Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign. It was an expensive dinner — each guest contributed at least $10,000.

The alternative, Donald Trump, represents what corporate America and Wall Street hates above all else – unpredictability and uncertainty.

Telecom issues have not made a big splash this year in either campaign, and regardless of who wins, their appointments to regulatory agencies like the FCC can have a major impact on consumer broadband initiatives and public policy. A Clinton administration could result in appointments of “centrist” Democrats that Bill favored during his two terms in office. Many of those former regulators are now lobbyists for the telecom industry. Or Hillary could move closer to Obama’s surprisingly tough pro-consumer policies on broadband issues and keep Thomas Wheeler at the helm of the FCC for a few more years.

attverizonCicconi would be pleased to see someone like former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford, Jr., take a seat at the FCC under a future Clinton Administration instead. Ford has served as an honorary co-chairman of Broadband for America, an industry-sponsored astroturf operation, for most of Obama’s two terms in office. He remains a close friend of both Bill and Hillary and is never far from the public eye, turning up regularly on MSNBC.

Broadband for America supports deregulation, opposes Net Neutrality, and essentially shills for its corporate sponsors. Rep. Ford would likely oppose Net Neutrality and continue support for near-total deregulation.

Verizon has also shown itself to be a Friend of Hillary. Three Verizon vice presidents each donated $2,700 to Hillary for America. They were joined by a senior vice president and another vice president, who gave an additional $1,000, according to Salon. A former Hillary Clinton operative who now lobbies for Verizon donated $2,700 as well, along with another Verizon lobbyist who pitched in $1,000.

While Bernie Sanders joined striking Verizon workers on the picket line, the Clinton campaign was cashing checks worth tens of thousands of dollars from Verizon executives and lobbyists. In May 2013, the telecom company paid Hillary a $225,000 honorarium in return for a speech (the text has not been disclosed) to Verizon executives.

The Clinton Foundation also benefited from Verizon contributions ranging from $100,000-250,000.

Dish Complains About FCC’s 125% Regulatory Rate Hike; Independent Cable Says It Isn’t High Enough

cable ratesThe Federal Communications Commission is getting an earful from satellite provider Dish Network, upset with the agency’s proposal to boost regulatory fees covering direct broadcast satellite services by 125% this year.

If the FCC adopts its new fee structure, Dish will pay 24 cents per subscriber (up from 12¢) per year to cover the cost of full-time employees at the FCC who spend their days monitoring and regulating satellite television providers. Satellite companies will also pay a one-time fee of 3¢ per subscriber in 2016 to cover the FCC’s downsizing expenses.

The regulator has successfully found a way to cover some of its expenses by charging the companies it oversees “user fees.” In 2015, the FCC collected nearly $340 million in regulatory fees. This year, the FCC wants more, seeking to impose a temporary “facility reduction cost” surcharge that will cover the expenses of moving employees to new, smaller offices, or downsizing the current ones to save money. The FCC says that will cost an extra $44 million. Taxpayers won’t pay those expenses, but pay television customers ultimately will when providers pass both of those fees on.

Dish says the rate hike is unjustified because of its size and scope, and runs contrary to the FCC’s goal of minimizing consumer bill shock. The satellite provider also wants the FCC to explain how it can justify more than doubling user fees while downsizing.

If the FCC doesn’t answer, the American Cable Association, representing small independent cable operators, is willing to share their views on the matter. The ACA complains the FCC isn’t charging DirecTV and Dish enough, noting they are still getting preferential treatment over cable and IPTV providers that are being asked to pay $1 per subscriber this year.

“There is absolutely no basis for keeping the proposed DBS fee levels over 75% below those proposed for other entities in the Cable/IPTV category,” wrote ACA president Matt Polka in comments to the FCC. “DBS providers should be paying the same Media Bureau regulatory fee.”

att directvPolka pointed to AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV as an example of how disproportionate fees cost small independent cable companies much more on a per-subscriber basis than telecom giant AT&T has to pay for almost 20 million DirecTV satellite customers.

“AT&T, now the nation’s largest [pay TV company], operates two types of services – its U-verse IPTV service and its DirecTV DBS service,” noted Polka. “Yet, AT&T will be assessed starkly lower regulatory fees for its approximately 20 million DirecTV subscribers than it will pay for its approximately 6 million IPTV subscribers, even though all of these services make absolutely comparable use of Media Bureau […]  resources and AT&T’s advocacy […] is on behalf of all its [pay TV] subscribers.”

Polka wants fee parity – charging the same user fees for all providers, regardless of the technology they use.

“Doing so will avoid the competitive distortions the current fee structure creates by having cable operators and IPTV providers, most of whom are far smaller than the DBS providers, cross-subsidize the fee burden of their primary and direct competitors in the marketplace,” Polka argued.

Whatever fee structure is ultimately approved by the FCC, customers can be certain providers will pad those fees when passing them on to customers. For more than a decade, some providers have used regulatory fee increases amounting to spare change as an excuse to pass on new “regulatory surcharges” that are many times more than what those providers actually pass on to the government.

“It’s a price increase,” bluntly notes Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation of America back in 2004.

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originating fees; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are government fees)

This spring, The Consumerist broke down a typical AT&T U-verse bill loaded in junk fees and surcharges. (The RED numbers [1, 4-10, 13-14, 17-20, 22] are AT&T-originated fees, fake surcharges/bill padding, or fees that represent the cost of doing business; BLUE numbers [2-3, 11-12, 15-16, 21, 23-25] are real government fees passed on to local, state, and federal taxing authorities.)

AT&T Exec Admits Wireless Network Built On Backs of Landline Customers

att mobileAn AT&T executive casually told an audience attending the Wells Fargo 2016 Convergence & Connectivity Symposium that a significant part of AT&T’s wireless network was built with money intended for AT&T’s landline network.

“I came more from the wireline [landline] business and had always a little bit of frustration for me because for many years before I picked up operations in construction and everything for the wireless side of the business, in the wireline world, I was spending a lot of money that was directly supporting the wireless operation, but it showed up as wireline spend,” said Bill Smith,  who has been with AT&T for 37 years and has served as president of AT&T’s Technology Operations since January, 2010. “So we’re not that good at allocating those expenditures.”

Smith’s admission gives further evidence that AT&T has been shortchanging investment in wireline and fiber networks for years, to the benefit of AT&T’s profitable wireless business.

Smith

Smith

When mobile networks were first being constructed, there was concern that private investment, not landline ratepayers, be responsible for covering the costs of building wireless infrastructure. Both AT&T and Verizon submitted regular rate increase requests to state regulators during the period, claiming additional compensation was needed to cover the costs of landline network upkeep and upgrades. In most cases, regulators approved those rate increases.

Smith’s admission suggests AT&T systematically allocated expenses associated with its wireless network on the wireline side of the business ledger, reducing the amount available to maintain landline service. Had regulators known, they would have likely rejected the rate increase requests and, more importantly, required AT&T to stop spending landline ratepayer funds on wireless networks.

By depleting funds designated for wired networks, AT&T ultimately made a cheaper choice about the type of advanced network it would deploy. AT&T rejected Verizon’s choice of FiOS fiber to the home service because it was ‘too expensive.’ AT&T’s less costly solution, U-verse, relies on fiber to the neighborhood, with existing copper wiring remaining in place between the nearest fiber link and the telephone interface box on the back of your home or business.

Smith also handily defeated his employer’s justifications for data caps, telling the audience AT&T has strong capacity with plenty to spare, noting increasing traffic demands on AT&T’s networks are nothing new for the company.

“But getting back to the capacity question, I don’t lay awake at night worried about that,” Smith said. “Yeah there are a lot more demands coming in to the business, but there is nothing new about that. We’ve lived through many, many cases of new applications, new waves causing increases in consumption. I feel very good about where we are. The density of our network is very strong, and as I mentioned, I think we lead the industry in terms of U.S. footprint in the density of our network and that’s great. Also we have things like small cell coming on the horizon.”

 

Opponent of EPB Fiber Expansion: Get ‘Innovative’ Satellite Internet Instead

Cleveland's monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

Cleveland’s monument in the downtown district. (Image: City of Cleveland)

AT&T, Comcast, and Charter have surrounded the city of Cleveland, Tenn., (population 42,774) for more than 20 years, yet after all that time, there are still many homes in the area that have no better than dial-up Internet access..

An effort to extend municipal utility EPB’s fiber to the home service into the community just northeast of Chattanooga on Interstate 75, has run into organized political opposition campaign, part-sponsored by two of the three communications companies serving the area.

Tennessee state Reps. Dan Howell and Kevin Brooks, both Cleveland-area Republicans, understand the implications. With AT&T, Comcast, and Charter resolute about not expanding their coverage areas anytime soon, the only chance Cleveland has of winning world-class broadband anytime in the reasonable future is through EPB, which has already offered to extend service to at least 1,000 customers in rural Bradley County in as little as three months. Most of those customers now rely on dial-up Internet services, because no broadband is available. Reps. Howell and Brooks are trying to get the the red tape out of the way so EPB can proceed, but the Tennessee legislature hasn’t budged.

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

EPB provides municipal power, broadband, television, and telephone service for residents in Chattanooga, Tennessee

There is a substantial difference between 30kbps dial-up and 100Mbps — one of the “budget” Internet tiers available from EPB. But some Tennessee lawmakers and corporate-backed special interest groups don’t care. To them, stopping public broadband expansion is a bigger priority, and they have attempted to stall, block, or prohibit municipal broadband, just to protect the current phone and cable companies that are among their generous contributors.

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first in America to enjoy gigabit residential broadband speed not because of AT&T, Comcast, or Charter, but because of the publicly owned electric company, EPB. So what’s the problem with that? The fact EPB spent $320 million on the fiber optic network — about $100 million of that coming from a federal grant — keeps some conservatives, corporate executives, and telecom shareholders up at night. They object to the public funding of broadband, calling it unfair competition for the two incumbent cable companies and one phone company, which have their own “privately funded” networks.

Republican Rep. Mike Carter, who serves Ooltewah, thinks that’s a lot of nonsense. He notes AT&T and other providers already receive government funding to service outlying areas that no other providers dare to tread for a lack of return on their investment.

cleveland_tn“[What] convinces me to back expansion of the EPB of Chattanooga is the fact that they received $111 million in stimulus funds, and in the next five years AT&T alone will receive $156 million of your money [in government funding] assessed every month on your bill to provide 10/4-gigabit service in those areas,” Carter explained to the Chattanooga Times-Free Press. “If the EPB’s $111 million matching grant somehow disqualifies those benefits going to my constituents, how do I explain to them that AT&T is receiving non-matching funds?”

“The issue then became, if it is necessary to create the world’s fastest Internet system, why would EPB not offer that for economic growth in its service area?” Carter continued. ” After I heard the story of the [gig’s] creation and realized that the money had already been spent, I asked myself if I would allow a firmly held principle of no competition with private enterprise by government to deny my constituents and neighbors the incredible benefits.”

Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee, is dismissive of Carter’s willingness to bend his principles. In his view, those without Internet access have other options instead of getting EPB Fiber on the public dime.

Owen

Owen

“You can get satellite Internet,” said Owen, who added that governments that invest in fiber technology could be “left behind by disruptive innovation,” which in his mind could be satellite Internet. Satellite customers would disagree.

“Horrible, horrible, horrible, and more horrible,” wrote Trey from another Cleveland — this time in Texas. “Speeds are consistently less than 2Mbps and they advertise up to 12. Try a cell phone booster and use that before resorting to satellite Internet.”

Hundreds of customers shared similar stories about their experience with satellite Internet, and they don’t believe it will be disruptive to anything except their bank account.

Owen and his group have not revealed many details about where its funding comes from, but the group is a member of the State Policy Network, which receives financial support from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Comcast. The group’s former leader, Drew Johnson, was also a former opinion page columnist at the Times-Free Press and used column space to criticize EPB and other issues that ran contrary to AT&T’s agenda in Tennessee.

Despite support from the Chattanooga area’s Republican delegation, many legislators from outside the area remain firmly in support of the telecom companies and their wish to limit or destroy community broadband projects like EPB, claiming they are redundant or are based on faulty business plans likely to fail. But while Comcast used to dismiss EPB’s gigabit service as unnecessary and AT&T considered gigabit speeds overkill, both companies are now racing to deploy their own gigabit networks in Chattanooga to compete.

The residents of Cleveland without broadband today probably won’t have it tomorrow or anytime soon. Many are hoping the Tennessee legislature will relent and let EPB solve their broadband issues once and for all. Cleveland resident Aaron Alldaffer is trying to help gin up interest in a renewed legislative push for EPB Fiber expansion with a Change.org petition.

The BBC World Service Global Business program visited Chattanooga in May 2016 to explore EPB Fiber and discuss its implications. (29 minutes)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

Federal Court Agrees With FCC: Broadband in a Utility; Net Neutrality Policies Upheld

netneutralityA federal appeals court today sided with the Federal Communications Commission, upholding its view broadband service is an essential utility that can no longer be left unregulated and open to the whims of large cable and phone companies.

The 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia firmly establishes the FCC’s right to transition broadband from its old designation as a barely regulated “information service” to a “telecommunications service” subject to broad oversight by regulators under the FCC’s “Title II” authority.

The most immediate implication of the court’s decision is upholding the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, which require Internet providers to grant equal access to all legal Internet content and applications regardless of the source, without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

“After a decade of debate and legal battles, today’s ruling affirms the commission’s ability to enforce the strongest possible Internet protections — both on fixed and mobile networks — that will ensure the Internet remains open, now and in the future,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler.

The ruling left broadband providers smarting, especially wireless carriers that once expected to be exempted from Net Neutrality regulations. Wireless broadband services are now also considered common carrier utility services subject to Net Neutrality.

“The people have spoken, the courts have spoken and this should be the last word on Net Neutrality,” Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement.

At least one Republican FCC commissioner, Ajit Pai, disagreed and was heartened by news a very disappointed AT&T was vowing a quick appeal to the Supreme Court.

“We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal,” said David McAtee II, the senior executive vice president and general counsel for AT&T.

“I continue to believe that these regulations are unlawful, and I hope that the parties challenging them will continue the legal fight,” Pai added. Pai has been a frequent critic of Net Neutrality.

But AT&T may find itself in the unenviable position of taking their case to the Supreme Court without the late Antonin Scalia on the bench. The ongoing opposition by Senate Republicans to hold hearings to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland to fill the open ninth seat on the court opens the door to a 4-4 tie vote on the FCC’s authority to regulate broadband as a utility, which would automatically affirm the lower court ruling.

Spring 2016: An Update and Progress Report for Our Members

stcDear Members,

We have had a very busy winter and spring here at Stop the Cap! and we thought it important to update you on our efforts.

You may have noticed a drop in new content online over the last few months, and we’ve had some inquiries about it. The primary reason for this is the additional time and energy being spent to directly connect with legislators and regulators about the issues we are concerned about. Someone recently asked me why we spend a lot of time and energy writing exposés to an audience that almost certainly already agrees with us. If supporters were the only readers here, they would have a point. Stop the Cap! is followed regularly by legislators, regulators, public policy lobbyists, consumer groups, telecom executives, and members of the media. Our content is regularly cited in books, articles, regulatory filings, and in media reports. That is why we spend a lot of time and energy documenting our positions about data caps, usage billing, Net Neutrality, and the state of broadband in the United States and Canada.

A lengthy piece appearing here can easily take more than eight hours (sometimes longer) to put together from research to final publication. We feel it is critical to make sure this information gets into the hands of those that can help make a difference, whether they visit us on the web or not. So we have made an extra effort to inform, educate, and persuade decision-makers and reporters towards our point of view, helping to counter the well-funded propaganda campaigns of Big Telecom companies that regularly distort the issues and defend the indefensible.

Four issues have gotten most of our attention over the last six months:

  1. The Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House merger;
  2. Data cap traps and trials (especially those from Comcast, Blue Ridge, Cox, and Suddenlink);
  3. Cablevision/Altice merger;
  4. Frontier’s acquisition of Verizon landlines and that phone company’s upgrade plans for existing customers.

We’ve been successful raising important issues about the scarcity of benefits from telecom company mergers. In short, there are none of significance, unless you happen to be a Wall Street banker, a shareholder, or a company executive. The last thing an already-concentrated marketplace needs is more telecom mergers. We’re also continuing to expose just how nonsensical data caps and usage-based billing is for 21st century broadband providers. Despite claims of “fairness,” data caps are nothing more than cable-TV protectionism and the further exploitation of a broadband duopoly that makes it easy for Wall Street analysts to argue “there is room for broadband rate hikes” in North America. Stop the Cap! will continue to coordinate with other consumer groups to fight this issue, and we’ve successfully convinced at least some at the FCC that the excuses offered for data caps don’t hold water.

Dampier

Dampier

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler’s broadening of Charter’s voluntary three-year moratorium on data caps to a compulsory term as long as seven years sent a clear message to broadband providers that the jig is up — data caps are a direct threat to the emerging online video marketplace that might finally deliver serious competition to the current bloated and overpriced cable television package.

Wheeler’s actions were directly responsible for Comcast’s sudden generosity in more than tripling the usage allowance it has imposed on several markets across the south and midwest. But we won’t be happy until those compulsory data caps are gone for good.

More than 10,000 Comcast customers have already told the FCC in customer complaints that Comcast’s data caps are egregious and unfair. Considering how unresponsive Comcast has been towards its own customers that despise data caps of any kind, Comcast obviously doesn’t care what their customers think. But they care very much about what the FCC thinks about regulatory issues like data caps and set-top box monopolies. How do we know this? Because Comcast’s chief financial officer this week told the audience attending the JPMorgan Technology, Media and Telecom Broker Conference Comcast always pays attention to regulator headwinds.

“I think it’s our job to make sure we pivot and react accordingly and make sure the company thrives whatever the outcome is on some of the regulatory proposals that are out there,” said Comcast’s Mike Cavanagh. We suspect if Chairman Wheeler goes just one step further and calls on ISPs to permanently ditch data caps and usage billing, many would. We will continue to press him to do exactly that.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Stop the Cap! supports municipal and community-owned broadband providers.

Other companies are also still making bad decisions for their customers. Besides Comcast’s ongoing abusive data cap experiment, Cox’s ongoing data cap trial in Cleveland, Ohio is completely unacceptable and has no justification. The usage allowances provided are also unacceptably stingy. Suddenlink, now owned by Altice, should not even attempt to alienate their customers, particularly as the cable conglomerate seeks new acquisition opportunities in the United States in the future. We find it telling that Altice feels justified retaining usage caps on customers in smaller communities served by Suddenlink while denying they would even think of doing the same in Cablevision territory in suburban New York City. Both Suddenlink and Cablevision have upgraded their networks to deliver faster speed service. What is Altice’s excuse about why it treats its urban and rural customers so differently? It frankly doesn’t have one. We’ll be working to convince Altice it is time for Suddenlink’s data caps to be retired for good.

We will also be turning more attention back on the issue of community broadband, which continues to be the only competitive alternative to the phone and cable companies most Americans will likely ever see. The dollar-a-holler lobbyists are still writing editorials and articles claiming “government-owned networks” are risky and/or a failure, without bothering to disclose the authors have a direct financial relationship to the phone and cable companies that don’t want the competition. We will be pressing state lawmakers to ditch municipal broadband bans and not to enact any new ones.

We will also continue to watch AT&T and Verizon — two large phone companies that continue to seek opportunities to neglect or ditch their wired services either by decommissioning rural landlines or selling parts of their service areas to companies like Frontier. AT&T specializes in bait-n-switch bills in state legislatures that promise “upgrades” in return for further deregulation and permission to switch off rural service in favor of wireless alternatives. That’s great for AT&T, but a potential life-threatening disaster for rural America.

We continue to abide by our mandate: fighting data caps and consumption billing and promoting better broadband, regardless of what company or community supplies it.

As always, thank you so much for your financial support (the donate button that sustains us entirely is to your right) and for your engagement in the fight against unfair broadband pricing and policies. Broadband is not just a nice thing to have. It is an essential utility just as important as clean water, electricity, natural gas, and telephone service.

Phillip M. Dampier
Founder & President, Stop the Cap!

AT&T Ghostwritten Bill Would Allow End of Rural Landline/DSL Service in California

att californiaIn California, AT&T’s money and influence has the power to bend reality for some members of the California legislature.

This spring, AT&T is lobbying hard for a bill it largely wrote itself that vaguely promises 21st century technology upgrades if the state’s politicians agree to near-total deregulation and permission to scrap landline service and DSL for rural residents.

Assembly Bill 2395, introduced by Assemblyman Evan Low (D-Silicon Valley), allows AT&T to decommission wired service across the state, so long as the company replaces it with any alternative capable of connecting customers to 911. Smoke signals might qualify, but most suspect AT&T’s true agenda is to replace its legacy wireline network with wireless service in areas where it has no interest upgrading its facilities to offer U-verse.

Members of the Assembly’s Utilities & Commerce Committee were easily swayed to believe the company’s claims this will represent a massive upgrade for California telecommunications. At least that is what the company is saying in their lobbying pamphlets. In April, committee chairman Michael Gatto (D-Los Angeles), one of the bill’s strongest advocates, told his fellow committee members it was safe to trust AT&T’s assurances it was not using the bill to kill rural landline telephone service.

“We have a very, very good perspective on history in this committee and you can rest assured that nobody will tear up any copper line infrastructure,” said Gatto, who gradually became less sure of himself as he pondered the impact of AT&T scrapping the one option many rural Californians have to connect to the outside world. “The cost of it, to tear up every street in the United States and take out the copper is not going to happen. At least, I don’t think it’ll happen…. This committee will not let it happen.”

Low

Low

Despite that less-than-rousing endorsement, and the fact the bill’s language would allow AT&T to do exactly that, the bill sailed to approval in the committee. It was also endorsed by a range of non-profit and business groups, including the Boys & Girls Club, Black Chamber of Commerce, Do It Yourself Girls, The Latino Council, NAACP-Los Angeles, San Jose Police Officers’ Association, and the United Women’s Organization — almost all regular recipients of “contributions” from AT&T.

Consumer groups are largely opposed to the measure, because it gives AT&T near carte blanche to disconnect rural residents and leave them with inferior and more expensive wireless alternatives. It also scraps most oversight over AT&T’s business practices in the state, which are not stellar. Those living in rural areas are opposed even more.

The Rural County Representatives of California, representing the interests of local leaders in 35 rural counties across the state, came out strongly against AB 2395, pointing out earlier deregulation efforts and a largely hands-off California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) helped create the digital divide problem that already exists in the state, and AT&T’s bill proposes to make it worse.

S

Frentzen

“While AB 2395 offers the promise of a more modern communications system for California, the bill devises a scheme that minimizes consumer protections and provides avenues for telecommunication providers to abandon their current subscribers from ever experiencing these modern telecommunications options,” said the group. “RCRC would have far more comfort with relinquishment proposals if California’s telecommunications stakeholders, including the CPUC, had met their obligations in providing near universal access. And that access included quality, demand-functions found in other areas of the state. Unfortunately, much of California has either no connectivity (unserved) or inferior connectivity (under-served). Until this digital divide is eliminated, we cannot support changes in the regulatory and statutory environment which furthers this gulf between who gets access and who does not.”

While AT&T continues to deny it will do anything to disconnect rural California, the company vehemently opposes efforts to drop language from the bill that would grant them the right to retire landline service. AT&T’s lobbyists insist the legislature can still trust the company, an idea that failed to impress Shiva Frentzen, the supervisor of El Dorado:

Trust is something that you earn. It’s built over time. We have a rural county each constituent, all your consumers, pay into the infrastructure, but we don’t see the high-speed coming to the rural parts of the county because it does not pencil out. For larger companies to bring the service in those areas – the infrastructure costs a lot and the monthly service does not pay for it. So that is the experience we’ve had with larger providers like yourself. We have not had the trust and the positive experience for our rural county, so that’s why we are where we are.

Editor’s Note: My apologies to Steve Blum, who didn’t get full credit for gathering most of the quotes noted in this piece. We’ve linked above (in bold) to several of his articles that have followed the AT&T lobbying saga, and we’ve added his blog to our permanent list of websites we can recommend.

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