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Some Fla. Lawmakers Fed-Up With Industry-Friendly Public Service Comm. That Grants Corporate Wishes

Phillip Dampier December 8, 2014 Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Video No Comments

corrupt pscFlorida’s Public Service Commission is charged with overseeing the state’s utility companies on behalf of the public interest, but some Florida lawmakers complain the regulator is corrupt, obsessed with fulfilling corporate wish lists and doing political favors for some of the state’s most powerful utilities and state legislators.

State Representative Chris Sprowls (R–District 65) and State Senator John Legg (R–District 17) have jointly filed legislation to reform Florida’s Public Service Commission (PSC). The two lawmakers joined consumer advocates in the state that complain the regulator has abandoned any pretense of representing consumers and today acts more like a consultant to facilitate corporate objectives in the state. The two lawmakers say their new bill is designed to send a strong message the PSC needs to be more reflective of the people they are supposed to serve.

“The Public Service Commission should serve the public good.  While millions of Floridians are left in the dark – or fleeced by companies like Duke Energy – the PSC continues to turn a blind eye,” said Representative Sprowls.  “These meaningful first steps will add some diversity and accountability to the PSC as we work on other reforms that will fundamentally alter the culture of the PSC.”

In recent years, the agency has reviewed proposals to end local oversight of cell tower placement, allowing AT&T and other carriers first choice of tower locations that work best for the companies, even if it creates visual pollution for nearby residents.

Last year, the Public Service Commission “compromised” with Duke Energy Florida, Inc. and saddled Floridians with $3.2 billion of the costs of shuttering one nuclear power plant and canceling another on the drawing boards. Duke’s shareholders were only on the hook for the first $295 million in costs associated with the Crystal River plant, while ratepayers covered more than ten times that amount.

The Commission also approved a sweeping series of rate increases for Florida Power & Light that will cause electric rates to soar across FPL’s service area, despite being informed that less than 1% of FPL customers supported the rate plan. In December 2012, FPL was granted a $350 million increase, but the deal also included increases of $236 million in 2014 and $217.9 million in 2016.

pscFlorida’s Public Counsel called the rate increases “abusive” and complained the PSC violated its due process when, despite the public counsel’s objections, it “abandoned” proceedings in which the public counsel had raised objections to FPL’s original petition and instead pursued approval of a settlement proposal from the utility that ultimately was agreed to by only a group of commercial customers.

This year, at the behest of the state’s largest energy companies, the Commission is rolling back energy efficiency goals originally proposed by the utilities themselves and is expected to kill a solar energy rebate program that has been a target of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Energy companies complain their rights are being violated by policies that require them to buy excess solar generated power from residential customers. In some states, homeowners attempting to install solar panels have received legal threats from utilities warning they would take the homeowners to court if the solar installation continued. In Florida, utility companies complain residential solar power is a nuisance.

“We want to bring on more renewables, but we also want to make sure the cost of electricity stays reasonable,” said Randy Wheeless, a spokesman for Duke Energy Corp., which serves customers in the Carolinas, the Midwest and Florida. Duke Energy has no objections to solar-generated power it collects itself.

One of the fiercest critics of Florida’s PSC is its former chair, Nancy Argenziano, who served a single two-year term while utilities complained about her pro-consumer voting record. She was not reappointed for a second term.

“I’ve never seen anything so corrupt as the PSC,” said Argenziano. “It’s the most corrupt place I have ever seen in my life, and that is someone coming from the House and Senate.”

Former PSC chairwoman Nancy Argenziano called Florida's current PSC "corrupt."

Former PSC chairwoman Nancy Argenziano calls Florida’s current PSC corrupt. (Image: Saint Petersburg Blog)

Argenziano blames Republican Gov. Rick Scott and several pro-business legislators for the corruption. According to Argenziano, the pressure to cave to the utilities’ demands came almost immediately after she joined the agency.

“After the third month,” she said, “I was at the PSC, the threats came in from the legislature to do as they say. l’m not going to sit there as a puppet head for some legislator.”

She has no love for lobbyists either, at one point sending a 25-pound box of manure to a lobbyist with whom she clashed on a nursing home bill.

Mike Fasano, the Pasco tax collector and a former state representative and senator, is also a critic of the PSC saying, “Unfortunately, the Public Service Commission and the Florida Legislature are bought and paid for by the utilities of Florida.”

Since the Scott Administration was voted into office, campaign contributions from electric utilities have flooded in to the point where Fasano believes the PSC now exists as a rubber stamp for the utilities.

“They can get away with it because they have paid for, they’ve bought and paid for the Florida Public Service Commission and the Florida Legislature and unfortunately the present governor,” said Fasano.

“Reforms are needed to restore confidence in the Public Service Commission,” said Sen. Legg. “Unfortunately, people don’t feel like they’ve been dealt with fairly and that is a problem.  I applaud Representative Sprowls for his courage and leadership on making this his first bill.”

The proposed legislation:

  • Limits commissioners from serving more than two consecutive terms;
  • Amends provisions for the purpose of statewide representation on the commission;
  • Divides the state into five districts, whose boundaries align with the district courts of appeal;
  • Each member of the Public Service Commission must reside within the respective district from which they are appointed;
  • Restricts elected officials from being appointed to the Commission for 2 years after leaving office.
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WTSP Tamps Florida PSC called corrupt by former chair 12-4-14.flv

WTSP in Tampa investigated the Florida PSC and uncovered a major link between utility campaign contributions and how the PSC votes. (3:24)

AT&T, Verizon Break Out The Campaign Contribution Checkbooks Early, Sending $ to the Newly-Elected

Big Telecom is already trying to buy incoming members of Congress with lavish campaign contributions.

Big Telecom is already trying to buy incoming members of Congress with lavish campaign contributions.

Before constituents have a chance to make an impression on Capitol Hill’s incoming freshmen class, AT&T and Verizon have rushed significant campaign contributions to more than two dozen newly elected members of Congress.

Politico reports AT&T has cut checks to 31 new members of the House and Senate, Verizon sent 28 checks, and Comcast donated to 22 winners in the fall elections. Most of the money went to incoming Republicans who will control both the House and Senate starting in January.

All three companies are seeking allies in the fight against Net Neutrality and for a wholesale rewriting of the Communications Act, the nation’s most important telecom-related legislation.

Congressional observers predict revisiting the Communications Act would be a lobbyist bonanza, with potentially billions flowing into congressional coffers to win further industry deregulation. The last major overhaul in 1996 transformed broadcasting, allowing a handful of corporations to own the majority of radio and television stations and allowing large phone and cable companies to govern themselves with respect to broadband and competition. Cable and broadband prices soared as a result, while the number of competitors dropped due to industry consolidation.

The telecom companies are well ahead of technology players like Microsoft and Google, that have collectively sent contributions to fewer than a half-dozen incoming members and are barely active in Washington in comparison to the biggest phone and cable companies.

AT&T Sneaks Telecom Deregulation Amendment into Ohio’s Agriculture/Water Quality Bill

Phillip Dampier December 2, 2014 AT&T, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband 9 Comments
Ohio Gov. John Kasich is threatening to veto the state's Agriculture Bill if it reaches his desk with telecom deregulation inserted as an amendment.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is threatening to veto the state’s Agriculture Bill if it reaches his desk with telecom deregulation inserted as an amendment.

AT&T’s lobbyists in Ohio have convinced state legislators to ignore a veto threat from the governor’s office and insert a deregulation amendment into an unrelated water quality and agriculture measure.

Retiring House Speaker Bill Batchelder (R-Medina) is shepherding AT&T’s latest attempt at total deregulation through the Ohio House of Representatives, claiming it will break down barriers for businesses in Ohio and give new businesses the infrastructure they need to make Ohio their home. Among Batchelder’s top donors is AT&T.

Critics contend the measure will disconnect up to 5% of rural Ohio from all telephone service because they live in “no signal bar” areas of the state.

The amendment, inserted into HB490 (at Sec. 4905.71), would end AT&T’s requirement to serve as a Provider of Last Resort, which has guaranteed that every Ohio resident seeking telephone service has had it for nearly 100 years. If the measure passes, AT&T can unilaterally disconnect service and leave unprofitable service areas, mostly in rural and poor sections of the state. Current Ohio law only permits a telephone company to end service if it can prove financial hardship and show that reasonable alternatives are available to affected residents. AT&T earned $128.75 billion in revenue in 2013 and is unlikely to meet any hardship test.

Although AT&T is unlikely to stop service in suburban and urban areas, ratepayers across the state would lose oversight protections from lengthy service outages, unreasonable billing standards and credit requirements, the ability to quickly connect or disconnect service and access to important low-income programs like Lifeline. Rural customers could be forced away from traditional landline and DSL service in favor of AT&T’s wireless network, which costs considerably more.

Current AT&T customers in Ohio can subscribe to landline service for around $20 a month in rural areas and broadband DSL for as little as $15 per month. AT&T’s wireless alternative costs $20 a month for voice service and at least $60 a month for wireless broadband (with a usage cap of 10GB per month and an overlimit fee of $10 per gigabyte). An average landline customer consuming 20GB of data would pay $35 a month for both voice and data services. The same customer using AT&T’s wireless voice and data alternative would pay $180 a month, mostly in overlimit penalties.

AT&T’s lobbying has riled Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich, who has threatened to veto any agriculture bill that reaches his desk with telephone deregulation attached.

att_logo“The telecommunications language will force the governor to veto this bill, as he has personally said and has also been repeated several times by other members of the administration,” Jim Zehringer, director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources told the Ohio Senate’s Agriculture Committee during an informal hearing on the legislation. “We would be sacrificing all the great work done so far on this bill if these provisions are not removed.”

The AARP is concerned the measure will not only hurt rural Ohio, but elderly and poor residents who cannot afford wireless service.

“They will only have wireless telephone service with no price controls or guarantees for low-income Ohioans in these areas,” AARP Ohio wrote in a released statement about the proposal. “Additionally, there are areas of Ohio where wireless service is minimal, and to provide the speed needed for those receiving tele-health services in those areas will be even more expensive.”

Interested Ohio residents can share their feelings with their state legislators and the governor’s office.

  • Locate your Ohio House Representative: http://www.ohiohouse.gov/ or call 1-800-282-0253 and ask to be connected to your local representative.
  • Governor John Kasich’s Office Phone: (614) 466-3555

Fiber Games: AT&T (Slightly) Backtracks on Fiber Suspension After Embarrassed by FCC

HissyfitwatchAT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s public hissy fit against the Obama Administration’s sudden backbone on Net Neutrality may complicate AT&T’s plans to win approval of its merger with DirecTV. forcing AT&T to retract threats to suspend fiber buildouts if the administration moves forward with its efforts to ban Internet fast lanes.

Hours after Stephenson told investors AT&T wouldn’t continue with plans to bring U-verse with GigaPower fiber broadband to more cities as long as Net Neutrality was on the agenda, the FCC requested clarification about exactly what AT&T and its CEO was planning. More importantly, it noted responses would become part of the record in its consideration of AT&T’s proposed acquisition of the satellite television provider. The regulator could not send a clearer message that Stephenson’s statements could affect the company’s $48.5 billion merger deal.

AT&T responded – four days after the FCC’s deadline – in a three-page letter with a heavily redacted attachment that basically told the Commission it misunderstood AT&T’s true intentions:

The premise of the Commission’s November 14 Letter is incorrect. AT&T is not limiting our FTTP deployment to 2 million homes. To the contrary, AT&T still plans to complete the major initiative we announced in April to expand our ultra-fast GigaPower fiber network in 25 major metropolitan areas nationwide, including 21 new major metropolitan areas. In addition, as AT&T has described to the Commission in this proceeding, the synergies created by our DIRECTV transaction will allow us to extend our GigaPower service to at least 2 million additional customer locations, beyond those announced in April, within four years after close.

Although AT&T is willing to say it will deliver improved broadband to at least “15 million customer locations, mostly in rural areas,” it is also continuing its fiber shell game with the FCC by not specifying exactly how many of those customers will receive fiber broadband, how many will receive an incremental speed upgrade to their existing U-verse fiber/copper service, or not get fiber at all. AT&T routinely promises upgrades using a mix of technologies “such as” fiber to the home and fixed wireless, part of AT&T’s broader agenda to abandon its rural landline service and force customers to a much costlier and less reliable wireless data connection. It isn’t willing to tell the public who will win fiber upgrades and who will be forced off DSL in favor of AT&T’s enormously profitable wireless service.

Your right to know... undelivered.

Your right to know… undelivered. AT&T redacted information about its specific fiber plans.

Fun Fact: AT&T is cutting its investment in network upgrades by $3 billion in 2015 and plans a budget of $18 billion for capex investments across the entire company in 2015 — almost three times less than what AT&T is ready to spend just to acquire DirecTV.

The FCC was provided a market-by-market breakdown of how many customers currently get U-verse over AT&T’s fiber/copper “fiber to the neighborhood” network and those already getting fiber straight to the home. But this does not tell the FCC how many homes and businesses AT&T intends to wire for GigaPower — its gigabit speed network that requires fiber to the premises. Indeed, AT&T would only disclose how many homes and businesses it plans to provide with traditional U-verse using a combination of fiber and copper wiring — an inferior technology not capable of the speeds AT&T repeatedly touts in its press releases.

That has all the makings of an AT&T Fiber Snow Job only Buffalo could love.

AT&T also complained about the Obama Administration’s efforts to spoil AT&T’s fast lane Money Party:

At the same time, President Obama’s proposal in early November to regulate the entire Internet under rules from the 1930s injects significant uncertainty into the economics underlying our investment decisions. While we have reiterated that we will stand by the commitments described above, this uncertainty makes it prudent to pause consideration of any further investments – beyond those discussed above – to bring advanced broadband networks to even more customer locations, including additional upgrades of existing DSL and IPDSL lines, that might be feasible in the future under a more stable and predictable regulatory regime. To be clear, AT&T has not stated that the President’s proposal would render all of these locations unprofitable. Rather, AT&T simply cannot evaluate additional investment beyond its existing commitments until the regulatory treatment of broadband service is clarified.

AT&T’s too-cute-by-half ‘1930s era regulation’ talking point, also echoed by its financially tethered minions in the dollar-a-holler sock-puppet sector, suggests the Obama Administration is seeking to regulate AT&T as a monopoly provider. Except the Obama Administration is proposing nothing of the sort. The FCC should give AT&T’s comments the same weight it should give its fiber commitments — treat them as suspect at best. As we’ve written repeatedly, AT&T’s fabulous fiber future looks splendid on paper, but without evidence of spending sufficient to pay for it, AT&T’s piece of work should be filed under fiction.

Google Fiber Prices Announced in Austin: No Surprises – 5/1Mbps Free, 1Gbps $70/Month

Phillip Dampier November 25, 2014 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Google Fiber 11 Comments

google fiberAustin residents will receive Google Fiber service under three rate plans: $70 for 1,000/1,000Mbps or 5/1Mbps at no charge after paying a $300 construction fee. A package including television costs $130 a month.

Google Fiber announced its prices this week in anticipation of a December launch in the capital city of Texas. But Google Fiber will arrive with at least two competitors beating them to the gigabit space: Grande Communications and AT&T.

Austin is the first city in the country to have three concurrent gigabit providers. Only Time Warner Cable has elected to sit out the city’s gigabit broadband fight. Google Fiber is expected to face stiffer competition in Austin than in Kansas City and Provo, where it also operates gigabit fiber networks. AT&T U-verse with GigaPower matches Google’s $70 price and San Marcos-based Grande Communications beats it, charging $64.99 for its 1,000Mbps service.

Google is sweetening the deal by converting the former home of a children’s museum into a “Fiber Space,” a community center at 201 Colorado Street – hosting concerts, community meetings, and clubs, in addition to showcasing Google’s fiber network.

As with AT&T’s gigabit U-verse upgrade, only a limited number of residents in Austin will initially be able to get the new fiber service. Google is initially lighting up areas in south and southeastern Austin. For some, the wait to eventually sign up could take up to several years as Google slowly builds out its network in the city of 885,000 people.

FCC to AT&T: Put Up or Shut Up; Agency Seeks Details About AT&T’s Fiber Pause Over Net Neutrality

Stephenson: No fiber for you

Stephenson: No fiber for you

AT&T’s decision to suspend fiber broadband upgrades over the Obama Administration’s strong support for Net Neutrality may backfire on the telecom giant’s multi-billion dollar bid to acquire DirecTV.

The Federal Communications Commission has dispatched a letter to Robert W. Quinn, Jr., AT&T’s senior vice President and federal regulatory & chief privacy officer, inquiring whether AT&T really meant what it said about plans to suspend fiber expansion and that might impact at least two million additional homes that are part of a broadband expansion commitment included in AT&T’s offer to acquire DirecTV.

The FCC’s Jamillia Ferris wants AT&T to clarify CEO Randall Stephenson’s comments at a recent investor event, requesting information that may reveal whether AT&T was using the suspension of its fiber buildout as a political weapon against Net Neutrality.

“We made some comments in the DirecTV announcement that we would build fiber to two million additional homes,” Stephenson said at a Wells Fargo technology conference last week. “We will obviously commit to that once the DirecTV deal is done, we will keep going. But what we have also announced on top of that is that we are going to deploy fiber to 100 cities. And look, we can’t go out and just invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities other than these two million not knowing under what rules that investment will be governed. And so we have to pause and we have to just put a stop on those kinds of investments that we are doing today.”

The FCC’s request suggests the company’s answers may impact how the FCC treats AT&T’s request for approval of its merger with DirecTV.

Requested from AT&T no later than Nov. 21:

(a) Data regarding the Company’s current plans for fiber deployment, specifically:

(1) the current number of households to which fiber is deployed and the breakdown by technology (i.e., FTTP or FTTN) and geographic area of deployment;

(2) the total number of households to which the Company planned to deploy fiber prior to the Company’s decision to limit deployment to the 2 million households and the breakdown by technology and geographic area of deployment; and

(3) the total number of households to which the Company currently plans to deploy fiber, including the 2 million households, and the breakdown by technology and geographic area of deployment;

(b) A description of

(1) whether the AT&T FTTP Investment Model demonstrates that fiber deployment is now unprofitable; and

(2) whether the fiber to the 2 million homes following acquisition of DirecTV would be unprofitable; and

(c) All documents relating to the Company’s decision to limit AT&T’s deployment of fiber to 2 million homes following the acquisition of DirecTV.

Big Cable, Telcos Spent $42 Million In 2013-2014 Lobbying for Deregulation, Against Net Neutrality

AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and the cable industry’s chief lobbying group spent $42.8 million during the 2013-2014 election cycle to weigh in on issues including burying Net Neutrality, outlawing community broadband competition, winning tax breaks for themselves, and avoiding consumer protection regulations.

A Common Cause analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the Institute for Money in State Politics shows that the usual suspects poured money into political coffers on the state and federal level to influence lawmakers.

2014-contributions-from-net-1

On the federal level, murky party committees received the largest individual checks: a total of $862,223 for House and Senate Republicans and $552,605 for Democrats. Individual members of Congress also received their own contributions, including Republican House Speaker John Boehner ($98,175 from Comcast) and Democratic Senator Mark Pryor ($88,650 from Comcast, TWC, and National Cable and Telecom. Assn.) Pryor will need to spend his contributions quickly. He was de-elected by Arkansas voters last Tuesday.

Net Neutrality is a major topic on the minds of the cable and telco companies, as is ongoing deregulation and decommissioning rural landline service, and pushback on revelations AT&T and Verizon were only too happy to turn over your phone records to the federal government.

In the states, the bigger the issues coming up in the legislature, the bigger the campaign checks. In Florida, AT&T is the state’s single largest source of political donations, giving $1.53 million to state lawmakers in the past year and another $660,000 to Gov. Rick Scott (R) and his appointed heads of state agencies. AT&T is lobbying for eliminating Florida’s telecommunications tax, win the right to place cell towers wherever they wish without much interference from local officials, and further deregulation. Most of AT&T’s money goes into the hands of the state’s Republicans.

In New York and California, Democrats got a major chunk of money from Comcast and Time Warner Cable — New York Governor Andrew Cuomo received $60,800 each from both Comcast and Time Warner Cable (totaling $121,600). California Governor Jerry Brown received $54,400 from Time Warner Cable and $27,200 from Comcast. Both states are reviewing the merger of the two companies this year. AT&T and Verizon are also major donors – AT&T wants to dismantle the rural telephone network in California and Verizon is trying to convince the New York legislature to approve its own rural landline replacement – Voice Link. It also wants reduced scrutiny of its landline performance in New York and more access to New York City buildings where it faces resistance from property owners who want compensation from Verizon to install FiOS.

2014-contributions-from-net

AT&T Blackmails America: No (Phony) Fiber Upgrades Until You Kill Net Neutrality

Phillip Dampier November 12, 2014 AT&T, Consumer News, Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

ransomAT&T is putting its gigabit fiber network upgrades on hold as long as President Barack Obama continues to insist on robust Net Neutrality for American broadband.

AT&T Randall Stephenson told Wall Street investors attending this morning’s Wells Fargo Technology, Media, and Telecom Conference that the current state of “uncertainty” created after President Obama delivered remarks Monday in favor of strong Net Neutrality protections makes any investment in fiber upgrades too risky to continue.

“We can’t go out and just invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities […] not knowing under what rules that investment will be governed,” Stephenson said, excluding the two million customers already upgraded under AT&T’s Project VIP, AT&T’s effort to boost its wireless infrastructure in rural areas and upgrade U-verse to handle incrementally faster broadband speeds. “We have to just put a stop on those kinds of investments that we are doing today.”

But Stephenson’s accusation that the president’s strong support for Net Neutrality is responsible for putting AT&T’s plans on hold ignores the financial realities that have been a part of AT&T’s proposed upgrades since the company first announced them in April 2014.

Construction of Verizon’s fiber to the home FiOS network required significantly enhanced spending for several years, much to the consternation of Wall Street, that frequently criticized the project as too costly. In contrast, there have been few complaints about AT&T’s much larger 100 city fiber project because financial reports show no significant spending increases or large-scale capex investments by AT&T. In fact, on Friday — three days before the president made his remarks on Net Neutrality — AT&T announced investment cuts of at least $3 billion for 2015.

Stop the Cap! has reported AT&T’s fiber upgrades lack appropriate financial support and will require billions in increased investments to offer more than a handful of demonstration projects limited to new housing developments and multi-dwelling units where construction costs are considerably lower.

Stephenson admitted that most of the company’s Project VIP upgrade effort is now nearly complete, allowing the company to return to “normal” spending levels seen when major upgrades are not underway.

“You say okay, here has been the [increased spending in the budget], those projects are finished, we spiked it,” Stephenson said. “Now we’re bringing it down to a more normal rate.”

Stephenson reminded investors that they will see a dramatic savings in investment spending starting late this year.

“Just the cost [to AT&T over the last few years of Project VIP and] to be putting away this much investment, [it has been] a big operating expense block […] that we have been dragging through the last three years as we did all these buildouts,” said Stephenson. “You will see in 2014 the fourth quarter that [level of] capex start to tail off.”

Net Neutrality Freakout: Wall Street Popping Prozac, GOP Furious, Big ISPs, Allies Shocked and Appalled

President Barack Obama’s strong commitment to robust Net Neutrality protections for the Internet has created a nightmare scenario for Net Neutrality opponents who can no longer count on an ex-telecom industry lobbyist now in charge at the Federal Communications Commission to take care of their business interests with watered down, damage-controlled, net-protection-in-name-only.

The attacks on President Obama’s convictions began almost immediately after his video was published on whitehouse.gov with Sen. Ted Cruz’s declaration that Net Neutrality was Obamacare for the Internet, a statement that may have played well with his Texas tea party base, but was quickly parodied on social media:

4

Hal Singer from the ironically named Progressive Policy Institute opined that President Obama’s decision to declare real Net Neutrality would likely lead to the new majority of Republicans to completely defund the agency in retaliation. PPI is strongly opposed to Net Neutrality and many other consumer protection measures and represents the interests of the George W. Bush wing of the Democratic Party, which consists of about six people (and Harold Ford, Jr. probably wishes he was one of them.)

net neutrality fee“We are stunned,” Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who is now president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said in an e-mail to Bloomberg reporters. After six years of supine oversight of giant telecommunications companies from former FCC chairman Julius “Data caps are innovative” Genachowski and the installation of an ex cable and wireless industry lobbyist as chief regulator of the country’s telecommunications industry, AT&T, Verizon and Comcast have faced few challenges to their regulatory wish lists.

The Washington Post “Innovations” editorial page proved once again the Post is now the leading publication neocons and pro-business conservatives keep hidden under their mattresses next to the Wall Street Journal for those private moments. WaPo devoted news space to a hack editorial from Larry Downes, who turned up in Congress earlier this summer to cheerlead the merger of AT&T and DirecTV and has vociferously opposed Net Neutrality since at least 2011.

In his generally fact-challenged piece, Downes proclaims the Obama Administration was seeking nothing less than to saddle the Internet with oppressive outdated regulations written in 1934, that the courts threw out earlier hybrid/compromise Net Neutrality regulations simply because they lacked the words “commercially unreasonable,”  and that implementing Net Neutrality would destroy investment in the world’s leading cable, mobile, and fiber networks.

Downes does not get out much, because other countries as diverse as South Korea, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Japan and Singapore have long since passed the United States, with much of Europe poised to follow their lead. Some of them even enforce Net Neutrality and the sky failed to collapse as a result. Broadband life is good in Bucharest.

Nothing about the Obama Administration’s proposal for Net Neutrality would do anything beyond preserving the Internet as we know and love it and judges told the FCC’s attorneys they had no authority to impose Net Neutrality under the freak flawed framework established by Michael Powell, former FCC chairman-turned cable industry lobbyist.

Downes also laims he is shocked, shocked I tell you to discover the FCC isn’t immune to political pressure from the White House and other Beltway forces. Except he is one of those Beltway forces.

The Post was content disclosing that Downes was simply a co-author of “Big Bang Disruption:  Strategy in the Age of Devastating Innovation” (Portfolio 2014) and the project director at the harmless-sounding Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy.

If you suspected Downes was just a tad closer to the industry he often advocates for than the newspaper was letting on, you would be right.

net neutrality comicIn fact, Downes is a “fellow” at the Bell Mason Group, a corporate advisory firm “passionate about partnering with forward-thinking corporate venturing and innovation executives, […] helping clients build risk-reduced, impactful programs and overcome corporate antibodies and obstacles [and deliver] measurable value.”

Net Neutrality is an example of one of those “risky corporate obstacles” to total monopoly control that could deliver Big Telecom companies “measurable value.” Among Downes’ past clients is a tiny phone company named AT&T, but you wouldn’t know it from Bell Mason’s well-scrubbed website. Too bad for them archive.org took a snapshot of an earlier version of his bio, revealing his less-than-arm’s-length relationship with AT&T.

None of this is apparently pertinent to the editors of the Washington Post. Disclosing Downes’ co-authorship of a far-less germane book one critic called a “big bang disappointment” was more than enough.

Bloomberg News avoided the hopelessly unbelievable talking points about Internet takeovers and concluded President Obama threw his FCC chairman under the bus. But even that conclusion originated from the conservative, anti-Net Neutrality group the Heritage Foundation, quoted in the piece:

“He threw Tom Wheeler under the bus,” said James Gattuso, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based policy group. Obama’s strong stance makes it harder for Wheeler to reach a compromise among proponents of regulation, Gattuso said.

Except proponents of Net Neutrality are tired of compromises that favor ungrateful telecom companies that routinely sue even the most minor consumer protections out of existence. Wheeler was rumored to be proposing yet another compromise as late as last week, one that would protect deep-pocketed content companies but leave consumers open to further abuse from high cost fast lanes and speed throttles.

Various tea party groups ginned up with claims of an imminent Obama socialist takeover of the Internet, Maoist censorship and protectionist rate regulation took to the comment sections of various news pieces and wrote comments like this:

“I don’t want government control that would force private companies not to control what I can see on the Internet.” 

riskyFor public policy mavens that claim Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem, countering Wall Street’s decisive view that Net Neutrality is a disaster for plans of revenue boosting schemes are harder to counter.

Obama’s intervention effectively kills Wheeler’s mixed plan, Paul de Sa, a senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York, said in a note. It will be hard for the FCC, with a majority of Democrats appointed by Obama, to deviate significantly from his preference, and strong rules are likely, de Sa said.

Obama’s intervention “does not lead to price regulation of broadband,” in part because the FCC has no desire to do so, he said. Debate in Washington will intensify, with Congress holding “interminable hearings” and trying to prohibit the FCC from applying the strong rules, de Sa said.

The meaning to investors was clear: Internet profiteering plans are on indefinite hold. Comcast Corp. fell 63 cents or 1.2 percent, to $52.33 at 10:39 a.m. in New York trading, and are down as much as 5.1 percent this week. Time Warner Cable Inc. dropped $3.34, or 2.5 percent. AT&T Inc. fell 16 cents to $34.97 and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) fell 15 cents to $50.57.

A move to fully reclassify broadband, even if it includes “forbearance” from rate regulation, as President Obama suggested, would send investors scurrying, according to Kim Wallace, a policy analyst at Renaissance Macro Research. That is because it would cast doubt on cable and telecom companies’ abilities to generate a “sufficient return” on capital investments, which they expect to be sky high based on the limited amount of competition that exists today.

Craig Moffett, perennial cable stock booster, had the temerity to blame the latest developments on Comcast.

“The great irony is Comcast helped start this ball rolling by trying to buy Time Warner Cable in the first place,” said Moffett, an analyst at MoffettNathanson. “With the specter of possible price regulation hanging in the balance, [the question is] would Comcast still want to increase its exposure to distribution assets” in broadband.

The Wall Street press provides some salve for the chafed telecom industry high-flyer — the likely prospect of litigation tying up Net Neutrality long enough for Republicans to write new telecom laws that would lead to near-total regulatory capitulation and a free hand for providers. But investors sure hate uncertainty, so the Money Party will have to be postponed for now.

We have four illuminating news stories to share today on Net Neutrality:

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/PBS Why is Obama weighing in on net neutrality 11-10-14.mp4

More than 3 million commenters crashed the Federal Communications Commission website in July to weigh in on the issue of net neutrality. Now President Obama has added his strong support, directing the FCC to protect equal access to all web content. Judy Woodruff speaks with U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith about the president’s move. (7:33)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Bloomberg Ex-FCCs Furchtgott-Roth Copps Debate Net Neutrality 11-10-14.flv

Former Federal Communications Commission members Harold Furchtgott-Roth and Michael Copps talk about President Barack Obama’s call for the “strongest possible rules” to protect the open Internet and the value of so-called net-neutrality rules. They speak with Cory Johnson on Bloomberg Television’s “Bloomberg West.” (7:00)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/CNN Here is why you should care about net neutrality 11-10-14.flv

CNN explores why you should care about Net Neutrality and reminds us in a world of distorted punditry exactly what “Net Neutrality” is. (3:58)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Fox Business Michael Powell Net Neutrality 11-10-14.flv

Fox Business gives former FCC chairman Michael Powell an unchallenged platform to present his views on Net Neutrality. It becomes clear which side Fox is on when they call porn peddler Larry Flynt the quintessential Net Neutrality advocate. (5:08)

The Menace of the Unburied Line: Cable & Phone Companies Create Hazards for Homeowners

One Alabama customer found her fence the home of not one, but two artistically-managed Charter Cable lines serving her neighbors.

One Alabama customer found her fence the home of not one, but two artistically-Amanaged Charter Cable lines serving her neighbors.

All across the country, people are encountering communications wiring that belongs underground or on a utility pole, but is instead scattered on the ground or left dangling on fences or in the street. Isolated incidents or a consequence of deregulation that has left community leaders’ hands tied? Stop the Cap! investigates.

A Louisiana woman eight months pregnant is suing Cox Communications Louisiana and its contractor after tripping over an exposed cable wire in her mother’s backyard the company didn’t bother to bury.

In Fort Myers, Comcast connected a neighbor’s cable service in a senior living community by scattering a cable across lawns and sidewalks for nearly a year before finally burying it.

In Alabama, Charter Cable turned cable wiring into an art form, attaching multiple homeowners’ cable TV wires in artistic designs to a neighbor’s fence, and he wasn’t even a customer.

Welcome to the scourge of the unburied, exposed cable wire. Typically called a “drop” by cable installers, these lines are common in communities where a cable or phone company uses a third-party contractor to manage buried lines. Some manage them better than others.

In the northern United States, replacement drops installed during the winter months often stay on the ground until spring because the ground in frozen, but in warmer climates in the southeast, cable companies are notorious for “forgetting” about orphaned cable lines that can take weeks or months to bury, often only after intervention by a local media outlet or politician.

Chardae Nickae Melancon’s complaint claims Cox installed cable service in June, 2013 and left the cable wire exposed in the backyard. In late August, Melancon claims she tripped and fell over the wire injuring her arm, right side, and other unspecified injuries. Her suit alleges Cox was warned the wire was installed improperly and only after her injury did Cox return to finish the job.

In Fort Myers, it took more than 11 months for Comcast to return and bury its line, snaked across lawns and sidewalks connecting several buildings in the retirement community.

Comcast left this cable lying across a sidewalk in a retirement community in Fort Myers, Fla. for 11 months.

Comcast left this cable lying across a sidewalk in a retirement community in Fort Myers, Fla. for 11 months.

“You know this [community] is 55 and older. We have got people in here that are 90 years old,” Bonnie Haines, a resident in the Pine Ridge Condo retirement community told WFTX-TV. “Could you imagine them walking or walking around that sidewalk and tripping over this, what would happen? They couldn’t see it at night. Fortunately for me I know it’s there. I’ve lived with it all this time but if somebody would come to visit an older person or something, they don’t know it’s there.”

Across the street lies another unburied Comcast cable.

“We’ve called multiple times. we’ve reported it multiple times,” said Eric Ray, the manager of the Pine Ridge Homeowners Association. “In fact, every time I see a Comcast truck in here I personally grab the driver, take him over to the spot, and he puts in a work order and takes pictures right in front of me and still no response.”

Comcast’s last reply before making the evening news:  “We’ll get to it soon.”

Twenty four hours after being a featured story on the station’s newscast, the cables were finally buried.

In Montgomery, Ala., an artistic cable installer has used one resident’s fence as the adopted home of Charter Cable’s lines. Jamie Newton, who isn’t a Charter customer, noticed an orange Charter Cable line attached to her fence one day after returning home. That was two years ago. Suddenly, an extra cable appeared, draped like Christmas tree garland.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WFTX Ft Myers Residents worried about exposed cable tv wire 1-15-14.mp4

Residents of a Ft. Myers, Fla. retirement community worry residents as old as 93 could be seriously injured if they trip over this Comcast Cable left on the sidewalk for at least 11 months. (3:00)

“At first I was surprised, and then it turned into a little bit of anger and frustration,” Newton told WSFA. “I have small children, I have friends’ children over, and the neighborhood kids come and play in my backyard. It’s not safe.”

Charter Cable is not interested because Newton is not a customer. Charter in fact recorded just one complaint from a Charter customer six months earlier, and they claimed a “glitch” was responsible for the cable not being buried.

(Image: WEWS-TV Cleveland)

(Image: WEWS-TV Cleveland)

While some customers have been encouraged to remove offending lines that cross property lines themselves, some have gotten into trouble doing so, charged with destruction of private property. The most common mistake homeowners make is cutting or displacing cables placed on or in a utility easement, which can be difficult to identify.

Some of the worst problems occur with cables that served now ex-customers. Residents complain AT&T, Comcast and Charter are not responsive to requests from non-customers to deal with abandoned wiring in disrepair. An outside line supervisor in San Francisco tells Stop the Cap! AT&T has few provisions to manage cabling no longer in service for a paying customers.

The city of Cleveland, Ohio is a prime example of how AT&T deals with unused cables. Residents reports dozens of abandoned lines snipped at head level and allowed to dangle off utility poles, eventually to fall to street level where children can handle them. Time Warner Cable was also accused of allowing cables to hang over Cleveland streets. Some are left over after demolishing vacant houses but the most frequent cause of hazardous cables is competition. When a customer cuts cable’s cord, drops a landline, or flips between providers, installation crews often cut and leave old lines swaying in the breeze or draped over sidewalks.

The problem grew so pervasive in Cleveland, city officials requested telecom companies coordinate an audit of their cable networks and remove dangerous wiring before someone gets hurt. But all they can do is ask. Ohio’s sweeping telecom deregulation law stripped local authority over AT&T and Time Warner Cable. The city’s leverage is now based on creative code enforcement and embarrassing the companies in the local media.

“We don’t have any regulation for phone and cable companies and hanging wires create a hazardous situation and it’s going to have to be regulated,” said Cleveland councilman Tony Brancatelli. “One of these times it’s going to be a hot line.”

Local media reported nearly the same problem four years earlier in Cleveland, and efforts to keep up with cables left in disrepair seem to wane after the media spotlight moves on.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WEWS Cleveland Neighbors worry kids will get desensitized to seeing low wires 4-3-14.mp4

Kids are at risk if they begin to disrespect hanging utility wires. An epidemic of abandoned cable and telephone cables are dangling over Cleveland streets and deregulation means cities have to ask providers nicely to deal with the problem. (3:00)

Time Warner Cable and AT&T have also pointed fingers at each other, implying the other is more responsible for the cables left hanging:

AT&T: “We certainly welcome attention on the topic of safety and any telephone wires that look out of place. To that end, we encourage you to share with your viewers the number for our statewide repair information line: 800-572-4545. Please do call this line to report locations of telephone wires that look out of place.  While your story pointed out that many of the problem lines you saw may not have been telephone lines, we look forward to removing or repairing any that we find, that indeed belong to our company.”

Time Warner Cable: “Maintaining line clearance is something we act quickly to correct anytime we identify a potential issue. Though it is not clear who owns the wires you cite in your story, when our lines need to be adjusted, we take immediate action.  If someone comes across a line they feel maybe too low, please call us and we will respond.”

One important tip from Stop the Cap! for both your safety and avoiding legal entanglements — don’t take on the job yourself.

Municipal officials tell us readers should call a local code enforcement officer and have them investigate utility cable issues. Unresponsive companies or those creating dangerous conditions for the public can be fined and most will respond quickly to an officer’s request to manage the problem, even when deregulated.

Customers allowing the cable company to install a temporary line in their own yard should check if they are signing a total liability waiver as part of the process. Doing so can limit your leverage if the cable company doesn’t return to bury the line.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WEWS City of Cleveland promises to address low hanging wires 4-7-14.mp4

WEWS-TV in Cleveland followed up on their earlier report after getting no response from cable and phone companies and finding even more hazardous, abandoned wiring littering Cleveland. (3:15)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WEWS Cleveland Major utility and cable companies meet with City of Cleveland 4-17-14.mp4

Cleveland officials asked cable and phone companies to send representatives to coordinate action to fix the problem, but deregulation makes the effort voluntary. (2:47)

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