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Programmer Conglomerates Preparing to Ax Smaller Cable TV Networks

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Is this the future of satellite TV?

Ten years ago, large programmers like NBC-Universal, Fox, Viacom, and Time Warner started bundling new niche channels into their programming packages, forcing pay television providers to add networks few wanted just to get a contract renewal agreement in place for the networks they did want. Now, in the era of cord-cutting, those programming conglomerates are preparing to slim down.

One of the largest — Comcast/NBCUniversal — is the first to admit “there are just too many networks,” to quote NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke.

Burke warned investors back in July that axing networks like Style and G4 was just the beginning.

“You’ll see us and others trimming channels,” Burke said during Comcast’s second-quarter earnings call. “We will continue to invest what we need to invest into our bigger channels, and we’ll continue to trim the smaller ones.”

Cable operators hope that day arrives sooner rather than later as cord-cutting continues to have an impact on cable-TV subscriptions.

For every popular cable network like USA and Bravo, cable operators get stuck carrying ratings-dogs like CNBC World, Centric, Cloo, VH1 Classic, Fox Business Network, and Fuse — all of which attract fewer than 100,000 viewers nationwide at any one time. Fuse barely attracted 51,000 viewers in 2015. But just about every cable TV customer pays for these channels, and many more.

Many cable channels wouldn’t survive without subscription fees because advertisers consider them too small to warrant much attention.

cable tvWhile Burke’s prediction has yet to slash the cable dial by more than a few networks so far, it has slowed down the rate of new network launches considerably. One millennial-targeted network, Pivot, will never sign on because it failed to attract enough cable distribution and advertisers, despite a $200 million investment from a Canadian billionaire. Time, Inc.’s attempts to launch three new networks around its print magazines Sports Illustrated, InStyle and People have gone the Over The Top (OTT) video route, direct to consumers who can stream their videos from the magazines’ respective websites.

Fierce Cable this week opined that forthcoming cord cutter-targeted TV packages streamed over the internet from players including DirecTV/AT&T and Hulu, among others, will likely start a war of cable network attrition, which may make the concept of a-la-carte cable a thing of the past. Editor Daniel Frankel believes the future will be a finite number of cable networks delivered primarily over IP networks, which are expected to dramatically pare down the traditional cable TV bundle into fewer than 100 channels. Only the most popular networks will be included in a traditional cable TV lineup, and some of these providers expect to deliver a bundle of fewer than 50 channels, including local stations. Those booted out of the bundle may still find life from viewers going OTT, if those networks can attract enough people to watch.

AT&T is hoping for the best of both worlds as it prepares to launch an internet-based package of networks under its DirecTV brand called DirecTV Now. Sources told Bloomberg News AT&T is hoping DirecTV Now will attract more subscribers by 2020 than its satellite service. At some point in the future, it may even replace DirecTV’s satellite television service.

directvDirecTV Now is expected by the end of this year and will likely offer a 100 channel package of programming priced at between $40-55 a month, viewable on up to two screens simultaneously. The app-based service will be available for video streaming to televisions and portable devices like tablets and phones. No truck rolls for installation, no service calls, and no equipment to buy or rent are all attractive propositions for AT&T, hoping to cut costs.

Since AT&T has taken over DirecTV, it has lost over 100,000 satellite customers. The threat to AT&T U-verse TV is also significant as customers increasingly look for alternatives to cable TV’s bloated and expensive programming packages. AT&T no doubt noticed the impending arrival of Hulu’s cable TV streaming platform next year and other services like Sling TV. Deploying their own streaming alternative with AT&T’s volume discounts from the combined subscribers of DirecTV and U-verse means AT&T can sell its streaming service at a substantial discount.

If consumers find the offerings from DirecTV Now and Hulu a credible alternative to traditional cable television, cord cutting could dramatically accelerate, provoking a response from cable operators likely to offer their own slimmed-down packages. So being among the 100 or so networks carried on DirecTV Now, or among the 50 or so networks Hulu is planning to offer, could be crucial to the future survival of any cable network. Those stranded in the 500-channel Universe of today’s cable television packages could be forced off the air or to an alternative means of reaching an audience such as OTT.

The lesson learned by the cable television industry is that customers are tapped out and unwilling to pay ever-rising cable TV bills for dozens of networks they’ve never watched and don’t intend to. The longer term lesson may be even more scary for some networks. Live, linear television as a concept may have seen its time come and go, at least for entertainment programming. While viewers are always going to seek live television for sports and breaking news, alternative on-demand viewing of everything else, preferably commercial-free, is a growing priority for many, especially if the price is right.

Net Neutrality End Run: AT&T Exempts Its Own DirecTV Content from Its Mobile Data Caps

directvAT&T Mobility customers can now stream AT&T-owned DirecTV video on their mobile devices without fear of hitting their data allowance, because AT&T has exempted its own content from mobile data caps.

AT&T customers using the DirecTV iPhone app discovered the sudden exemption in an update released today, according to a report in Ars Technica:

“Now you can stream DirecTV on your devices, anywhere—without using your data. Now with AT&T,” the app’s update notes say under the heading “Data Free TV.” This feature requires subscriptions to DirecTV and AT&T wireless data services.

It sounds like the data cap exemption may not apply to all data downloaded by the app, as the update notes further say that “Exclusions apply & may incur data usage.” The service is also “Subject to network management, including speed reduction.” We’ve asked AT&T for more information and will provide an update if we receive one.

Customers can also use the app to download shows recorded on their home DVR straight to their mobile device(s) for viewing. Updates to the DirecTV apps for Android and iPad devices introducing similar exemptions are still pending as of this morning.

A description of "what's new" in the DirecTV app released this morning in the iTunes app store.

A description of “what’s new” in the DirecTV app released this morning in the iTunes app store.

AT&T is engaging in a practice known as “zero rating,” which exempts certain provider-preferred or owned content from that provider’s own data caps or allowances. Critics call zero rating an end run around Net Neutrality because users are more likely to use services that don’t count against their data allowance over those that do. The FCC’s definition of Net Neutrality prohibits providers from artificially enhancing the performance of certain websites at the expense of others, but says nothing about data caps or zero rating.

Chima

Chima

“All forms of zero rating amount to price discrimination, and have in common their negative impact on users’ rights,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director of Access, a group fighting for global preservation of Net Neutrality. “Zero rating is all about control. Specifically, control over the user experience by the telecom carrier — and potentially its business partners. We can see this is true when we look at how zero rating is implemented technically. Technologically, it is about manipulation of the network, where you guide or force the user to change the way they would otherwise use it.”

The FCC seemed to agree with Chima, specifically banning AT&T from exempting its own streaming video services and those of DirecTV from AT&T’s data caps in the agreement allowing AT&T to acquire DirecTV. But the FCC only mentioned AT&T’s caps on its DSL and U-verse home broadband services, not AT&T Mobility. AT&T took full advantage of the apparent loophole for its mobile customers.

AT&T has previously stated it does not discriminate against online content and is happy to exempt other video services from its data allowances and caps if those companies pay AT&T for the privilege.

The benefit of zero rating is obvious for AT&T. The company can now market its cell phone services to DirecTV customers with a significant advantage over competitors — free access to DirecTV video not available from Verizon, Sprint, or T-Mobile. It can also strengthen its earlier promotion offering unlimited DSL/U-verse service to those who bundle either product with a DirecTV subscription, by pitching zero rating for customers on the go.

AT&T’s competitors T-Mobile and Verizon also engage in zero rating on their mobile service plans.

Wireless Providers Create Challenges for Smartphone Upgrade Marketplace

samsung s7Smartphone manufacturers are dealing with sluggish sales for the newest and greatest phone models because American consumers are increasingly resistant to paying for top of the line devices.

Apple, Samsung, and others are facing some of their biggest challenges ever delivering upgrade features deemed useful enough to encourage consumers to spend the more than $600 that many high-end phones now command in the marketplace. As blasé new features fail to deliver a “must-have” message to consumers, many are hanging onto their existing phones and refusing to upgrade.

The decision by wireless providers to stop subsidizing devices backed by two-year contracts have delivered sticker shock to consumers looking for the latest and greatest. The Apple iPhone 7, expected to be announced this month, will likely carry a price of $650 — a serious amount of money, even if your wireless provider or Apple agrees to finance its purchase interest-free for 24 months. Despite the fact wireless providers charged artificially higher service plan rates to recoup the cost of the device subsidy over the length of the contract, consumer perception made it easier to justify paying $200 for a subsidized phone versus paying full retail price and getting cheaper service.

As a result, consumers are strategically holding on to their cell phones longer than ever and avoiding upgrade fever just to score a lower cell phone bill. The Wall Street Journal reports that since T-Mobile started the trend away from device subsidies in 2013, Citigroup estimates the smartphone replacement cycle has now lengthened to 29.6 months, considerably longer than in 2011 when upgrades were likely even before the two-year phone contract expired.

The average combined revenue earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged "price war."

The average combined monthly revenue (in $) earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged “price war.” (Image: Trefis)

Wireless providers don’t mind the change since they endured fronting the subsidy cost to phone manufacturers and slowly recouped it over the next two years. Not dealing with a subsidy would make the accounting easier. But AT&T and Verizon Wireless both understood the average consumer doesn’t have a spare $650 sitting around for a new device, much less the nearly $2,500 it would cost to outfit a family of four with a new top of the line smartphone every two years. So they entered the financing business, breaking the cost of the device into as many as 24 equal installment payments. Instead of paying $672 for a Samsung Galaxy S7, Verizon Wireless offers 24 equal installments of $28. That would be a distinction without much difference from the old subsidy system except for the fact some carriers are trying to sell their equipment financing obligations to a third-party, allowing them to move that debt off their books as well.

In fact, wireless providers are doing so well under the “no-contract/pay full price or installments” system, Wall Street analyst firm Trefis has started to ask whether the so-called wireless carrier “price war” is just a mirage. The firm notes (reg. req’d.) all the four major carriers are doing well and collecting an increasing amount of money from their customers than ever before. Much of that added revenue comes from customers bulking up data plans and being forced to pay for unlimited voice and texting features they may not need. But Trefis also points to reined in marketing spending at the carriers, who no longer have to entice customers into device upgrades as part of a contract renewal.

Things are looking worse for phone manufacturers that have relied on revenue based on the two-year device upgrade cycle in the United States. Apple is under growing pressure as its iPhone faces declining demand. In the U.S. alone, analysts predict iPhone sales will drop 7.1% this year. UBS predicts an even less optimistic 9% drop, followed by a 5% drop next year, even after iPhone 7 is introduced. AT&T has already reported some of the lowest upgrade rates ever during the first three months of 2016.

Another clue consumers are planning to hold on to their smartphones longer than ever — sales of rugged cases and screen protectors are up, as are smartphone protection/loss insurance plan sales, according to AT&T senior VP Steven Hodges. Parents even expect their children to give their phones better care.

Customers “realized it was a $500 to $700 device,” Hodges said at an industry conference held in June. “As such, they started taking care of them differently. You tell a kid this is only $49, the kid is going to use his phone as a baseball at times.”

Other customers are looking forward to benefiting from a dramatically lower bill after paying off their device in 24 months.

Kristin Maclearie has an iPhone 6 and she wants to keep it for the long term, if only to see her Verizon bill drop once she finishes her monthly payments. She told the Wall Street Journal as long as it keeps working, “I’ll just hang onto the one I have,” she said. “Unless something really cool comes out…but they’re always similar.”

AT&T to Urban Poor: No Discounted Internet Access if We Already Deliver Lousy Service

access att logoAT&T is adding insult to injury by telling tens of thousands of eligible urban households they do not qualify for the company’s new low-cost internet access program because the company cannot deliver at least 3Mbps DSL in their service-neglected neighborhood.

In one of the worst cases of redlining we have ever seen, AT&T is doubling down on making sure urban neighborhoods cannot get online with affordable internet access, first by refusing to upgrade large sections of income-challenged neighborhoods and then by refusing requests from those seeking the low-cost internet service the government required AT&T to provide as a condition of its merger with DirecTV.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance reports their affiliates have run into serious problems helping AT&T customers sign up for Access from AT&T, the company’s new discounted internet access program open to users of the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — the modern-day equivalent of food stamps. Participants are supposed to receive 3Mbps DSL for $5 a month or 5-10Mbps for $10 a month (speed dependent on line quality).

“As some NDIA affiliates in AT&T’s service area geared up to help SNAP participants apply for Access in May and June, they found that a significant number were being told the program was unavailable at their addresses,” NDIA reported. “Some of those households had recent histories of AT&T internet service or had next door neighbors with current accounts. So, why were they being told AT&T did not serve their addresses?”

It turns out AT&T established an arbitrary threshold that requires participating households to receive a minimum of 3Mbps at their current address. But AT&T’s urban neighborhood infrastructure is so poor, a significant percentage of customers cannot receive DSL service faster than 1.5Mbps from AT&T. In fact, data from the FCC showed about 21% of Census blocks in the cities of Detroit and Cleveland — mostly in inner-city, income-challenged neighborhoods — still cannot manage better than 1.5Mbps DSL.

Remarkably, although these residents cannot qualify for discounted internet service, AT&T will still sell them 1.5Mbps DSL service… for full price. AT&T even admits this on their website:

access att

“If none of the above speeds are technically available at your address, unfortunately you won’t be able to participate in the Access program from AT&T at this time. However, other AT&T internet services may be available at your address.”

“About two months ago, NDIA contacted senior management at AT&T and proposed a change in the program to allow SNAP participants living at addresses with 1.5 Mbps to qualify for Access service at $5/mo,” NDIA wrote. “Yes, we know we were asking for the minimum speed to be lower than it should be, but paying $5/mo is better than paying full price and in many neighborhoods, both urban and rural, Access is the only low-cost broadband service option. I’m sorry to report that, after considering NDIA’s proposal for over a month, AT&T said no.”

“AT&T is not prepared to expand the low-income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval,” is the official response of AT&T, leaving tens of thousands of AT&T customers unlucky enough to be victims of AT&T’s network neglect and underinvestment out in the cold.

Slowsville: These Cleveland neighborhoods marked in red cannot get anything faster than 1.5MBps DSL from AT&T.

Slowsville: These Cleveland neighborhoods marked in red cannot get anything faster than 1.5MBps DSL from AT&T.

Internet access is not just a problem in rural America. Urban neighborhoods are frequently bypassed for network upgrades because there is a sense residents cannot afford to pay for the deluxe services those upgraded networks might offer. Similar issues affected city residents that waited years for cable television to finally arrive in their neighborhoods. Some providers evidently felt they would not get a good return on their investment. Yet data consistently shows cash-strapped urban residents are among the most loyal subscribers to cable television, because it is less costly than many other forms of entertainment. This year, urban content viewers were among the most loyal cable TV subscribers, even millennials notorious for cord-cutting.

Regulators should review AT&T’s compliance with its DirecTV merger conditions. Access from AT&T should be available to every qualified home, particularly those AT&T will happily furnish with appallingly slow 1.5Mbps DSL, if customers agree to AT&T’s regular prices.

FCC Surrenders on Municipal Broadband; Won’t Appeal Pre-Emption Loss to Supreme Court

Slow-Road-Sign-378pxCommunity broadband advocates will have to redouble their efforts to overturn state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband, because the Federal Communications Commission today signaled it will no longer be a part of that fight.

The federal regulator chaired by Thomas Wheeler sought to preempt state laws that restrict or ban publicly owned broadband networks, but municipal broadband opponents challenged the FCC in court and won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The judges found the FCC had exceeded its authority.

“The FCC will not seek further review of the Sixth Circuit’s decision on municipal broadband after determining that doing so would not be the best use of Commission resources,” agency spokesperson Mark Wigfield told Motherboard.

In short, the FCC will let stand that court’s decision overturning the FCC’s preemption of state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband, handing a major victory to Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable (now Charter).

“Sometimes you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, told Motherboard. “This case was always something of a long-shot, but now it’s too much of a long-shot to put money on.”

The decision not to appeal will require broadband advocates to battle in each impacted state to overturn the restrictive laws, which could be a long and arduous process. The alternative is voting in a majority of Democrats to the U.S. House and Senate. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) introduced the “Community Broadband Act” — legislation to end anti-broadband state laws. Critics of the laws contend they are often written and lobbied for by incumbent telecom companies that don’t want competition. But the legislation has no chance of passage as long as Republicans maintain their House and Senate majority.

Federal Court Dismisses AT&T Throttling Lawsuit; AT&T Skates on a Loophole

Signage for an AT&T store is seen in New York October 29, 2014. AT&T Inc has made a bid for Yahoo Inc's internet business, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

Signage for an AT&T store is seen in New York October 29, 2014. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A federal appeals court in California on Monday dismissed a U.S. government lawsuit that accused AT&T Inc  of deception for reducing internet speeds for customers with unlimited mobile data plans once their use exceeded certain levels.

The company, however, could still face a fine from the Federal Communications Commission regarding the slowdowns, also called “data throttling.”

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit said it ordered a lower court to dismiss the data-throttling lawsuit, which was filed in 2014 by the Federal Trade Commission.

The FTC sued AT&T on the grounds that the No. 2 U.S. wireless carrier failed to inform consumers it would slow the speeds of heavy data users on unlimited plans. In some cases, data speeds were slowed by nearly 90 percent, the lawsuit said.

The FTC said the practice was deceptive and, as a result, barred under the Federal Trade Commission Act. AT&T argued that there was an exception for common carriers, and the appeals court agreed:

The panel reversed the district court’s denial of AT&T Mobility LLC’s motion to dismiss, and remanded for an entry of an order of dismissal in an action brought by the Federal Trade Commission under section 5 of the FTC Act that took issue with the adequacy of AT&T’s disclosures regarding its data throttling plan, under which AT&T intentionally reduced the data speed of its customers with unlimited mobile data plans.

Section 5 of the FTC Act contains an exemption for “common carriers subject to the Acts to regulate commerce.” 15 U.S.C. § 45(a)(2). The panel held that AT&T was excluded from the coverage of section 5 of the FTC Act, and FTC’s claims could not be maintained. Specifically, the panel held that, based on the language and structure of the FTC Act, the common carrier exception was a status-based exemption and that AT&T, as a common carrier, was not covered by section 5.

Asked about the appeals court ruling, a spokesman for AT&T said: “We’re pleased with the decision.”

An FTC spokesman said the agency has not yet decided whether to appeal. “We are disappointed with the ruling and are considering our options for moving forward,” FTC spokesman Jay Mayfield wrote in an emailed comment.

The company, however, could face action from the FCC. In June 2015, the agency proposed a fine of $100 million for AT&T’s alleged failure to inform customers with unlimited data plans about the speed reductions. AT&T has contested that proposed fine.

(By Diane Bartz; Editing by Paul Simao and Matthew Lewis; Additional reporting by Stop the Cap!)

AT&T’s Latest Sneaky Wireless Rate Hike

Always looking for a new angle.

Always looking for a new angle.

While T-Mobile and Sprint are preparing to battle it out offering dueling unlimited data plans, Verizon Wireless and AT&T are continuing to raise prices for many customers while pushing upgrades on customers some do not need.

This week, AT&T officially introduced its Mobile Share Advantage plan, with most of the advantages going to AT&T.

Per device fees have shot up by as much as 33% if you have more than two smartphones on your account. AT&T used to charge $15 per smartphone as a device fee. Now it is $20, offset in many cases by some reductions in data plan costs. But once you add a third device, you are paying a $5 rate increase per device.

The company is also trying to clean up its reputation by eliminating the scourge of data-related overlimit fee bill shock. Before the change, AT&T customers faced an overlimit fee of $5 for each 300MB used on its 300MB data plan and $15 per gigabyte on other plans. Instead of billing overlimit fees, AT&T is adopting punishing speed throttles for customers over their allowance. Once customers exceed their plan limit, speeds are reduced to 2G levels, up to 128kbps. While that is just painful for web pages, it makes watching video and uploading photos next to impossible without experiencing frustrating network timeout error messages.

Gone are the 2, 5, and 15GB plans. Customers can now choose from 12 different usage plans ranging from 1-100GB.

data plans att

But AT&T’s most conservative users of data are going to pay more under the new plan. Customers enrolled in the old 2GB $30 data plan, suitable for those who use their phones to check e-mail and view web pages, will find that same $30 will only buy them 1GB if they switch to the new plan. To avoid the likelihood of hitting the speed throttle, these customers will have to upgrade to a 3GB plan for $40 — a $10 increase.

For everyone else who happens to slightly exceed their data allowance, many may end up preferring the old $15 overlimit fee system. Under the new plan, customers have to live with speed throttles that make their devices almost unusable until the billing cycle refreshes. We predict many customers won’t wait and will upgrade their data plan to restore functionality. But upgrades from the 3GB and 6GB plans come in $20 increments — $5 more than the overlimit fee charged for slightly going over. Even worse, if the overage was a one-time issue, many customers will spend $20 more on a data allowance many probably won’t use.

Customers are free to keep their existing plan, for now. But if they change plans, they won’t be able to switch back.

Christmas in August: Calif. Allows AT&T to Fine Itself and Keep the Money

att400California’s Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) couldn’t get cozier with AT&T if they moved regulators into the phone company’s plush executive suites.

In a 3-2 decision, the CPUC has given California phone companies that cannot manage to keep their wireline networks in good order an early Christmas, allowing the companies to effectively fine themselves for bad performance and keep the money.

Although the CPUC adopted a series of “automatic fines” for companies with chronic service problems (AT&T is by far the largest offender), it completely negated any sting by allowing companies to skip the fine by demonstrating they’ve invested at least twice the amount of the penalty in their networks. That is an expense AT&T’s bookkeepers can manage to document in minutes just by highlighting AT&T’s investments in other parts of the state. AT&T can argue investments in gigabit fiber in southern California or wiring fiber to business parks and cell sites improves service reliability for at least some customers.

CPUC president Michael Picker isn’t in any hurry either, helpfully offering AT&T and other phone companies two years to complete the investments that will cancel their fines:

In support of a request to suspend the fine, carriers may propose, in their annual fine filing, to invest no less than twice the amount of their annual fine in a project (s) which improves service quality in a measurable way within 2 years. The proposal must demonstrate that 1) twice the amount of the fine is being spent, 2) the project (s) is an incremental expenditure with supporting financials (e.g. expenditure is in excess of the existing construction budget and/or staffing base), 3) the project (s) is designed to address a service quality deficiency and, 4) upon the project (s) completion, the carrier shall demonstrate the results for the purpose proposed. Carriers are encouraged to review their service quality results to find appropriate target projects to invest funds.

Consumer advocates have accused AT&T of underinvesting in their wireline facilities for years. Because the CPUC does not require the investment be specifically targeted to correcting problems that prompted the fine, phone companies can continue to allow high cost/low profit rural infrastructure to deteriorate while targeting service-improving investments in more profitable or competitive service areas.

Steve Blum from Tellus Venture Associates, who has closely tracked telecom public policy matters in California for years, called it the most cynical decision he’s ever seen from the CPUC:

Fines, it seems, are just another cost of doing business for telecoms companies and don’t matter anyway. So why not let them keep the money?

Boiled down, that’s CPUC president Michael Picker’s rationale for establishing new telephone voice service level requirements backed up by a swinging schedule of penalties and then saying but we’ll let you keep the money if you invest it in infrastructure or pay staff. Or something. Anything.

Picker

Picker

Commissioner Mike Florio called the Picker’s proposal “unenforceable.”

The CPUC’s own staff has documented the troubling condition of landline service in the state. A staff report published in September 2014 showed the largest phone companies in the state — AT&T and Verizon (later sold to Frontier Communications) — that control 88% of landlines in California never met the CPUC’s minimum standard of repairing 90% of “out of service” trouble tickets within 24 hours during 2010-2013.

In 2010 and 2011, AT&T and Verizon needed an average of 110 hours to repair 90% of outages. That is 4.5 days. In 2012 and 2013, repair time marginally improved to an average of 72 hours (3 days). That is three days without any phone service or the ability to call 911, something the CPUC staff said compromised public safety.

AT&T and Verizon have papered the CPUC’s walls with “corrective action reports” over the years explaining why they failed to meet CPUC standards and what actions they planned to take to improve compliance. The staff report found those reports never resulted in improved compliance.

Commissioner Catherine Sandoval submitted an alternative plan of simple fines and a reporting system that gives equal weight to outages occurring in areas served by independent phone companies like Citizens Telecommunications Company of California (d/b/a Frontier) and SureWest Telephone (d/b/a Consolidated Telephone). Picker didn’t bother to hold a vote on Sandoval’s proposal, instead bringing his own proposal to the commission that approved it on a 3-2 voice vote. Florio and Sandoval voted no.

Despite the easy out, the state’s phone companies are still complaining the fine system was unnecessary because the free market was best equipped to manage service outages. If customers don’t like their provider, they can switch, assuming there is another provider available in the large rural and mountainous parts of the state.

AT&T’s Cash Storm for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2017 Telecom Deregulation Agenda

Phillip Dampier August 18, 2016 Issues 3 Comments

fat cat attAT&T has gone over the top donating at least $70,000 to back Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, more than the company has ever donated to anyone else.

It isn’t by coincidence.

According to Communications Daily (subscription req’d), one of Ryan’s top priorities for 2017 is a possible complete rewrite of the Telecommunications Act — the nation’s most important federal law governing telecommunications regulation and the operations of the Federal Communications Commission. Ryan and many of his fellow Republicans have been critical of the FCC’s growing interest in consumer protection and industry oversight.

Ryan’s efforts to push for further deregulation and policies that could lead to further industry consolidation could generate a windfall in the billions for AT&T. Past revisions of the Act have radically transformed the telecom landscape in the United States. President Bill Clinton’s signature on the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the door to a tsunami of cross-media ownership and radio/TV station consolidation. Provisions in the ’96 Act were promoted as bolstering competition, but critics argued consolidation was favored over competition.

Howard Zinn summarized the effects of the ’96 law in his book A People’s History of the United States: “[it] enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information.” Adding to the criticism, Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano echoed: “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.”

In 2000 Consumers Union blasted the ’96 Act as legislative bait and switch.

Ryan

Ryan

“It is evident that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has failed to produce the consumer benefits policy makers promised because competition has failed to take hold across the communications industry,” the group said. “The fundamental problem is that the huge companies that dominate the telephone and cable TV industries prefer mergers and acquisitions to competition.”

AT&T is reportedly interested in access to lawmakers to lobby for telecom reforms that will allow it to switch off its legacy copper wire phone network in rural America, force certain consumers to wireless-only landline service, get rid of Net Neutrality, allow more wireless industry consolidation, ban municipal broadband, have a louder voice on privacy and cybersecurity regulation, access to wireless spectrum, and preferably a de-fanged FCC.

Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman told Communications Daily AT&T’s contributions are a “fundamental way of gaining access and influence to policymakers,” as part of Washington’s “pay-to-play system.”

The only entity giving Ryan more money than AT&T was the deregulation-obsessed Koch Industries, which gave $75,000.

Ryan’s current chief of staff is a close friend to Big Telecom. David Hoppe lobbied for AT&T, USTelecom and Verizon before being hired by Ryan. Hoppe’s influence appears to be significant after Ryan introduced “A Better Way,” the GOP’s platform for what they will do if they keep control of Congress and win the White House. The plan makes it clear there is unhappiness with the FCC under the leadership of chairman Thomas Wheeler, opposition to Title II reclassification of broadband — a change that opened the door to enforcing Net Neutrality, and a belief the FCC lacks transparency and is living in the regulatory past.

Holman worries that lobbyist spending in Washington, already a problem, has become insane after Citizens United eliminated limits on campaign contributions.

“The lids have been blown off… it’s breathtaking,” Holman told the newsletter.

Meet North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis (R-ALEC/Time Warner Cable)

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC's "Legislator of the Year" and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Back when we first became aware of Republican member of the North Carolina legislature Thom Tillis around 2010, he was hard at work building his political future just as Republicans were poised to take control of the state legislature for the first time since the days of Reconstruction. Despite running unopposed in 2010, Tillis raised more money from cable and phone companies than any other lawmaker in the state, depositing $37,000 before knowing he would be the next Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives in January 2011. To celebrate, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 just a few weeks before the swearing-in ceremony. It was money well spent, if you were a cable or phone company doing business in North Carolina.

Tillis left the legislature in 2015 to become the junior U.S. Senator from North Carolina. The telecom industry made sure to keep the campaign contributions flowing, if only to give their thanks for Tillis’ unwavering support for their agenda. Tillis doesn’t care much for his rural constituents still waiting for something better than dial-up internet access and as long as his campaign coffers remain bulging with corporate contributions, he doesn’t think he has much to fear from the state’s voters either. After all, he survived accusations from a resigning House Finance chairman that he had a secret business relationship with Time Warner Cable.

Raleigh’s The News & Observer felt it was their duty to mention Tillis in their editorial pages anyway, taking him to task for “cheering a loss for North Carolina consumers last week after a federal appeals court upheld a cable company protection law that he supported as state House speaker in 2011.”

The newspaper is talking about North Carolina’s infamous anti-public broadband bill that was literally constructed by lobbyists working for Time Warner Cable. The law effectively made it impossible for community broadband providers to bring their much-needed service to adjacent communities that have waited more than a decade for companies like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others to offer internet access in rural and underserved parts of the state.

Tillis personally helped shepherd the corporate protection bill, designed to shield incumbent cable and phone companies from community competition, through the state legislature, supporting it every step of the way. It would become law in 2011 and rural broadband in North Carolina hasn’t gotten any better since. In fact, it’s almost stagnant. But Tillis cannot say the same thing about his campaign bank accounts, which continue to bulge with corporate donations now in excess of $11 million.

An effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the state law failed in a federal appeals court, much to the delight of Thom Tillis, something the newspaper calls an “insult” to North Carolinians looking for a better deal.

“Today’s ruling affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the FCC completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hard-working taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Tillis said in a statement. Cough, cough.

The newspaper’s response:

Translation: Time Warner and other companies, thank goodness, will retain control of the market without having to worry about towns competing with them and thus will be able to charge people whatever the market will bear.

For Tillis to say the court ruling, which should be appealed, is a triumph for taxpayers is preposterous. It’s a setback. The “free market” he backs is one free of competition from municipal broadband services that offer a better product at a lower price.

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