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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.

Big Headaches for Frontier Takeover of Verizon Landlines/DSL/FiOS in Texas, Florida, and California

As of late Monday afternoon, Downdetector.com still shows widespread outages for Frontier customers in North Texas, western Florida and parts of California.

As of late Monday afternoon, Downdetector.com still shows widespread outages for Frontier customers in North Texas, western Florida and parts of California.

Despite promises this past weekend’s transition from Verizon Communications to Frontier Communications would result in little more than “a logo change,” countless customers in the affected states of Florida, Texas, and California reported long service outages, website problems, and long holds waiting to talk to customer service representatives about when service would be back.

The outages were most widespread on Friday morning, April 1, when many subscribers awoke to discover they no longer had phone, television, or broadband service. A blitz on social media directed at Frontier quickly followed on Facebook and Twitter, many summing up their first experience with Frontier to be like “dealing with a third-rate phone company.”

Louise Thompson called the transition “a total fiasco” and some businesses lost thousands of dollars on Friday alone. The “Happy Grasshopper” was one of them, after losing Internet and phone service.

“We have 20 employees who can’t get any work done here today,” said owner Dan Stewart.

Gerard Donelan, a real estate appraiser who works from home in South Tampa, was still without service Friday afternoon. “I talked to customer service about 10:30. … He told me service was down in the Tampa Bay area, and he didn’t know when it was coming back, and there was nothing he could do,” Donelan told the Tampa Tribune. “What a joke. These guys were telling us just yesterday how seamless this was going to be. My next phone call is to Bright House.”

welcome frontierThe popular Zudar’s sandwich shop downtown was still unable to swipe credit cards or take phone or Internet orders at mid-afternoon. “It’s having a terrible effect on business,” said owner Eric Weinstein. “It’s absolutely an epic failure on their part. An amazing lack of customer service and communication.”

frontier texasThe City of Plano (Tex.) lost its website in the transition. Frontier shared its failure with AT&T mobile customers in parts of Florida, who found cell service not working because Frontier also took control of fiber links connecting many of AT&T’s cell towers to AT&T’s network. Many of those were down too.

“During the early morning of April 1, 2016, a technical issue occurred during the integration of the systems Frontier acquired from Verizon that impacted service to some enterprise and carrier customers in Florida, Texas and California.  As of 9:30 am eastern, the issue was resolved,” the company’s statement said.  “In addition, an unrelated fiber cut occurred that impacted customers in the Tampa market.”

Across all three states, Frontier officials hurried to downplay the impact of the service outages, which are continuing to this day for some customers. In some statements, Frontier claimed only about 500 business customers lost service, and there were no widespread problems. But many of the 3.7 million customers in Texas, Florida and California enduring the transition say those outages and problems affect residential accounts.

“There is ‘absolutely nothing widespread going on?'” asked Eric Petty, an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College. “What a bunch of liars. How stupid do they think their customers are?”

One of the biggest problems customers are encountering is the procedure to transition their online access from Verizon to Frontier. To begin that process, customers need a new Frontier ID, but that is easier said than done if you lack landline service. As part of the registration process, customers need to enter the account PIN number usually displayed on landline bills, but often missing from broadband-only service bills.

frontier floridaLee Allen of Dallas was one of many frustrated customers. He spent an hour trying to manage the Frontier MyAccount registration process and when he tried to sync his Verizon and Frontier account together, it was a flop.

Two calls to Frontier customer service and still no joy reports the Dallas Morning News.

“I’m in limbo,” he said Friday afternoon.”I’m self-employed and work from home. They are supposed to be a technology company. They should have been ready.”

Frontier says they are aware of this problem and are working on a solution.

In Los Gatos, Calif., it was an Internet-free weekend for most of the city’s former Verizon Internet customers, who also lost service on Friday. As of Sunday morning, they still didn’t have service, according to the San Jose Mercury News:

Los Gatos customers were assured the transition on April 1 would be smooth with no interruption to service. But that hasn’t been the case, said Beau Graeber, Fenesy’s neighbor who’s helping him contact the company and reconfigure his Internet.

“It’s a little frustrating,” Graeber said, adding that Verizon — now Frontier — is the only option for Internet and telephone service in Los Gatos, outside of cable or satellite providers. “For Ralph and some of my other neighbors, it’s a terrible inconvenience.”

frontier californiaConcerned customers with bills due this week are finding they don’t have enough access on Frontier’s website to arrange payment of their bill. Frontier says not to worry – “Until this process is completed on April 8th, you will only have very limited account access, even with a Frontier ID,” Frontier reports. “You can still use your Frontier ID to download the Frontier TV App, HBO GO, Watch ESPN, Disney and other popular entertainment Apps. If your bill is due during this period, rest assured that all late fees will be waived.”

Beyond total service outages and interruptions, other customers are reporting various problems with Frontier’s version of FiOS TV:

  • Frontier began migrating their 100,000 title On Demand library to FiOS on April 2. The process was supposed to be complete Saturday afternoon, but some customers are still having problems. Frontier: “We understand how important Video on Demand is to our customers. We apologize for the inconvenience and are working diligently to ensure the content is available as soon as possible. If you get a message that the service is ‘temporarily unavailable,’ you should reboot your set-top box to refresh the VOD service. To reboot, unplug your set-top box, wait at least 10 seconds, and then plug it back in. Please note, a reboot can take up to 3 minutes as the system refreshes your settings. If you continue to experience any issues accessing VOD, please call our Tech Support team at 1-877-600-1511.”
  • The Nickelodeon Jr. FiOS TV Widget/App was retired by Nickelodeon on March 31 prior to the transition to Frontier. It is, therefore, not available. Customers can still watch Nick Jr. on their home television. Customers can also access Nick Jr.’s programming via the web, at www.nickjr.com, or through Nickelodeon’s mobile apps for iOS and Android.
  • When searching for a Video on Demand title with the FiOS TV remote, customers may notice due to the transition from Verizon to Frontier, many of the movies and TV shows are not appearing in either “New Releases” or “Collections”. However, they can be found by scrolling down to “By Title” and then selecting “All” in order to find your choice. You can also search for your VOD by selecting the “B” button on your FiOS TV remote.

frontier new logoFrontier promised regulators things would go better for new Frontier customers after the company botched a similar transfer of AT&T customers in Connecticut that went so poorly, the company had to offer $50 service credits to affected customers.

“We have lessons to learn,” Frontier spokeswoman Kathleen Abernathy told Connecticut regulators at the time.

“They didn’t learn a thing,” said Stan Rogers, a transitioned Frontier customer outside of Allen, Tex. “I was there for the Connecticut switchover two months before I moved down here and now I get to experience the same thing all over again. To give you an idea of where Frontier is on the technology curve, they have sent me information about how to transition my Verizon e-mail address to AOL. Hello!”

North Texas resident Larry Allen agrees, “I didn’t think anything could drive me back to Comcast, but Frontier may do it. TV issues, email issues, Frontier can’t process my information to set up an account, horrible/outdated selection of movies on demand, [and] Frontier [is] not responding to emails for assistance.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/WTSP Tampa Frontier transition not as smooth as promised 4-1-16.mp4

WTSP in Tampa reports Florida area customers didn’t get the easy transition from Verizon to Frontier they were promised. (2:22)

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KTVT Dallas Frontier service problems persist for some 4-3-16.mp4

KTVT in Dallas reports Frontier service outages created headaches for customers across North Texas. (2:08)

AT&T Tells Customers $30 Extra for Unlimited Internet is Good News (for AT&T)

fat cat attAT&T has indirectly announced it will enforce hard data caps on its U-verse broadband service for the first time, imposing overlimit fees for customers that exceed their allowance unless they agree to pay $30 extra a month for a new unlimited add-on plan.

AT&T’s Consumer Blog announced effective May 23, AT&T was increasing the usage allowances on its DSL and U-verse broadband service and is introducing a new $30 unlimited option for broadband-only customers many actually had all along because AT&T never enforced its cap for U-verse.

Customers currently bundling video and data services from AT&T/DirecTV will get a break – the unlimited option will apply at no extra charge if you agree to a single, combined bill for all of your AT&T services. The decision to apply usage caps to broadband-only customers, often cord-cutters, while effectively exempting current U-verse TV/DirecTV video customers is sure to raise eyebrows.

AT&T originally told customers its usage caps were designed “to ensure it is providing a sustainable network to customers.”  But in a company FAQ, AT&T destroys its own argument for the need to cap anyone. “Will offering unlimited data negatively impact the AT&T network? No. AT&T will continue to actively manage the network to handle the increasing demand for data.”

AT&T’s need for data caps is also eroded by company claims only a small percentage of customers exceed them.

Why caps again?

Why caps again?

“Today, our home Internet customers use just over 100GB of data per month on average,” AT&T wrote. “So even with our smallest U-verse Internet data allowance of 300 GB the average customer has plenty of data to do more.”

At least for now.

A review of AT&T’s past average usage claims is revealing. In 2011, AT&T told Tom’s Hardware the average customer consumed about 18GB a month. In 2015, AT&T’s cached support site claimed average customers used around 35GB a month. As of this week, AT&T says average users now exceed 100GB a month. If AT&T decides not to regularly revisit allowances (AT&T took five years to revisit the subject this week, having introduced 150GB caps on DSL and 250GB on U-verse in 2011), customers are likely to face pressure to sign up for the $30 unlimited add-on or buy television service from AT&T to avoid overlimit charges that will top out at $200 in penalties for DSL customers, $100 for U-verse overlimit fees.

average usage

Beginning May 23, AT&T’s website will include a data usage meter to help avoid AT&T’s overlimit penalty: $10 for each 50GB increment one exceeds their allowance. AT&T claims only 4% of its customers will exceed their future data allowances. They wouldn’t say how many exceed the current ones.

Because U-verse customers have avoided AT&T’s usage caps in the past, the company is now reminding customers it will give several warnings before you experience bill shock:

  • In the first bill cycle when you reach 100% of your data allowance, AT&T will update you via email, but there will be no charges.
  • In the second bill cycle, AT&T will notify you via email at 65%, 90%, and 100%, and still without charges.
  • In the third bill cycle, and each bill cycle thereafter, you’ll receive reminder emails at 65% and 90%. At 100% AT&T will notify you and add an additional 50GB of data to your account for $10 each time you exceed the allowance. Customers will receive reminders about their data usage for the additional 50GB at 75% and 100%.

All usage — including uploads and downloads — counts towards the cap. There is just one exception. Wireless traffic from an AT&T MicroCell, designed to boost weak cell signals inside the home, is not included in AT&T’s Internet data usage allowance. To help ensure accurate billing, you have to register your AT&T MicroCell account and residential AT&T Internet account.

Here are the new data allowances that will take effect May 23rd:

monthly data allowance

DSL Reports’ Karl Bode is skeptical of the “consumer benefits” AT&T is touting as part of the change:

That last bit is a fairly transparent ploy to address a spike in cord cutting at AT&T — by forcing customers into signing up for television services they may not actually want if they want to avoid usage restrictions. Whether using arbitrary caps to force users to sign up for TV technically violates net neutrality (either the FCC’s rules or the concept in general) is something that’s likely to be hotly debated.

It’s also curious that just as AT&T indicates it’s backing away from U-Verse TV (which should technically free up more bandwidth on the AT&T network), it’s implementing caps on a network it originally stated didn’t need caps thanks to “greater capacity.” That’s because as with Comcast, caps really aren’t about capacity or financial necessity, they’re about protecting traditional TV revenue from Internet video. At the end of the day, AT&T’s just charging $30 a month (or more) for the same service, while trying to frame it as a net positive for consumers.

Commerce Secretary Appoints Comcast VP to Advisory Board to Protect Free & Open Internet

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast's David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

Phillip Dampier: Putting Comcast’s David Cohen on a panel to protect the free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to run the SEC.

I got whiplash this afternoon doing a double-take on the improbable announcement that Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker has seen fit to appoint David Cohen, senior vice president and chief lobbyist at Comcast, to the first-ever Digital Economy Board of Advisors, which counts among its goals protecting a free and open Internet. He will be joined by AT&T’s chief lobbyist, the omnipresent Mr. James Cicconi.

Neither has much patience for Net Neutrality. Cicconi and Cohen have both lobbied Congress and regulators to keep Comcast and AT&T free from regulation and oversight, even as Comcast imposes usage-billing and data caps on a growing number of its customers, while exempting its own streaming video content from those caps. For its part, AT&T is exploring “zero rating” preferred content partners to escape the wrath of its own wireless data limits and advocates against community broadband competition.

The board will be co-chaired by Markle Foundation president Zoe Baird and Mitchell Baker, executive chairwoman of Mozilla.

“As we develop an agenda to help the digital economy grow and thrive, it is critical that we engage with those on the front lines of the digital revolution,” said Pritzker.

It apparently doesn’t matter that the front lines being explored are those of the allies and enemies of Net Neutrality. Putting David Cohen on the case to protect a free and open Internet is like appointing Bernie Madoff to head the Securities & Exchange Commission.

Consumers are, as usual, woefully under-represented on the panel. Only Marta Tellado, president and CEO of Consumer Reports, is likely to solely advocate for ordinary Internet users. The rest of the panel is made up of bankers, businesspeople (including the CEO of a home shopping channel), academia, think tanks and dot.com interests:

David "I'm crushing your unlimited Internet access" Cohen

David “I’m crushing your unlimited Internet access” Cohen

  • Karen Bartleson, president-elect of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
  • Greg Becker, president and CEO of Silicon Valley Bank and SVB Financial Group
  • Austan Goolsbee, Robert P. Gwinn Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business
  • Mindy Grossman, CEO and director of HSN
  • Oisin Hanrahan, co-founder and CEO of Handy
  • Sonia Katyal, Chancellor’s Professor of Law at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law
  • James Manyika, director of the McKinsey Global Institute
  • William Ruh, CEO of GE Digital and Chief Digital Officer for GE
  • Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft
  • Corey Thomas, president and CEO of Rapid7
  • Susan Wojcicki, CEO of YouTube
  • John Zimmer, co-founder and president of Lyft

Time Warner Cable Reminds Los Angeles About Outrageous Cost of Sports TV

Phillip Dampier March 29, 2016 Consumer News, Time Warner Cable No Comments

SportsNet-LA-logoA bone toss by Time Warner Cable (just over a week before the opening of baseball season) to get Southern California satellite and cable providers to pick up carriage of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ SportsNet LA at a discount has backfired and further inflamed critics of the cost of sports programming.

Now two years old, the cable channel jointly owned by the Southern California division of Time Warner Cable and the Los Angeles Dodgers has been a sore spot for sports fans who don’t subscribe to Time Warner Cable or Charter Communications — the only two major providers offering the sports channel. It is the exclusive home of all-things-Dodgers and the Major League Baseball team was well compensated by Time Warner Cable with $8.35 billion for the 25-year deal.

Because of the huge amount of money on the line, Time Warner Cable priced SportsNet LA at $4.90 a month wholesale per subscriber — a stunning amount for a channel devoted to a single sports team. Providers serving Southern California, including DISH, DirecTV, Verizon, Cox, and AT&T, refused to carry the channel, and for two years Dodgers games have not been seen by more than half the region’s pay TV customers.

dodgersThe issue has sparked outrage among sports fans and politicians, who have complained about the ongoing impasse between Time Warner and other providers. Only Charter Communications, now in sensitive negotiations with the California Public Utilities Commission over its acquisition of Time Warner Cable, relented and agreed to pick up the channel for its customers last summer.

Time Warner Cable has consistently refused to allow the channel to be sold a-la-carte. Instead, every cable TV customer has to pay to make Time Warner’s expensive deal with the Dodgers pay off for the cable operator. Because other companies have consistently boycotted the network, Time Warner Cable has lost a reported $100 million a year from SportsNet LA.

That may explain why this year Time Warner Cable suddenly announced it would offer one year of the channel at a discount – $3.50 a month wholesale, closer in line with other regional sports channels.

Under normal circumstances, the price cut should attract other providers to get a deal signed, but these are not normal times in the cable television business.

Time Warner’s offer has been met with angry accusations of hubris in the Los Angeles sports press. None of the providers boycotting the channel seem interested in the deal either. The reason? The discount only lasts one year, after which the price shoots back up.

Imagine the customer service call centers at DirecTV and Verizon taking heated phone calls in March 2017 when the sports channel gets dropped for its too-high renewal rate.

hostage“Why would anyone give everyone a taste of something for a year?” Mark Ramsey, a media consultant based in San Diego, told the Los Angeles Times. “All the leverage goes to the seller, not the buyer. It’s a temporary fix. This is not a free sample for Sirius XM. Dropping a channel is worse than not carrying a channel.”

Cable subscribers, particularly non-sports-fans, are also incensed at the prospect of their TV bill going up $3.50-5.00 a month for a single channel.

The dispute continues to fuel speculation that these kinds of money disputes are sure to hurry the demise of the one-size-fits-all cable TV package. Around one-quarter of Americans don’t subscribe to cable or satellite and less than two-thirds of those that do are adults 18-29. That demographic reality spells eventual doom. Cable TV is increasingly a must-have service only among older Americans. At least 83% of those 50 and older subscribe to cable television. That number drops to 73% for those aged 30-49. The younger you are, the less likely you see a need for cable television.

As a-la-carte alternatives grow, an ever larger percentage of Americans are expected to abandon the cable package. So far, the only party that doesn’t seem to care much either way is the Dodgers — they got their $8.35 billion and can sit on it for the next two plus decades.

Time Warner Cable likely underestimated the blowback on its wholesale pricing plans for SportsNet LA, but seems happy enough for now to offer only a temporary discount. But it also gives their customers another excuse to scrutinize their cable bills, which now include a “sports programming” surcharge, and scream for a-la-carte across the board.

“So, I am supposed to be excited that TWC is going to lower the price of the Dodgers to other providers? Right?,” complained Scott Bryant from Apple Valley. “Now myself, and others who could care less about the Dodgers will be forced to add another $3.50 a month to get the Dodgers, a team I could care less about? This is a joke, right? It’s time to force all cable/satellite providers allow us to pick our own channels and pay for what we want. This is nothing more than corporate welfare. When I see another added fee to my bill for local sports coverage, I will do it, too! I’m an Angels fan. Forcing me to pay for the Dodgers is criminal. I’m a sports fan, but this is out of control. Where are my scissors?”

Attacks on Tennessee’s EPB Municipal Broadband Fall Flat in Light of Facts

latinos for tnThe worst enemy of some advocacy groups writing guest editorial hit pieces against municipal broadband is: facts.

Raul Lopez is the founder and executive director for Latinos for Tennessee, a 501C advocacy group that reported $0 in assets, $0 in income, and is not required to file a Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service as of 2014. Lopez claims the group is dedicated to providing “Latinos in Tennessee with information and resources grounded on faith, family and freedom.”

But his views on telecom issues are grounded in AT&T and Comcast’s tiresome and false talking points about publicly owned broadband. His “opinion piece” in the Knoxville News Sentinel was almost entirely fact-free:

It is not the role of the government to use taxpayer resources to compete with private industry. Government is highly inefficient — usually creating an inferior product at a higher price — and is always slower to respond to market changes. Do we really want government providing our Internet service? Government-run health care hasn’t worked so well, so why would we promote government-run Internet?

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn't for the good of anyone.

Phillip Dampier: Corporate talking point nonsense regurgitated by Mr. Lopez isn’t for the good of anyone.

Lopez’s claim that only private providers are good at identifying what customers want falls to pieces when we’re talking about AT&T and Comcast. Public utility EPB was the first to deliver gigabit fiber to the home service in Chattanooga, first to deliver honest everyday pricing, still offers unlimited service without data caps and usage billing that customers despise, and has a customer approval and reliability rating Comcast and AT&T can only dream about.

Do the people of Chattanooga want “the government” (EPB is actually a public utility) to provide Internet service? Apparently so. Last fall, EPB achieved the status of being the #1 telecom provider in Chattanooga, with nearly half of all households EPB serves signed up for at least one EPB service — TV, broadband, or phone service. Comcast used to be #1 until real competition arrived. That “paragon of virtue’s” biggest private sector innovation of late? Rolling out its 300GB usage cap (with overlimit fees) in Chattanooga. That’s the same cap that inspired more than 13,000 Americans to file written complaints with the FCC about Comcast’s broadband pricing practices. EPB advertises no such data caps and has delivered the service residents actually want. Lopez calls that “hurting competition in our state and putting vital services at risk.”

Remarkably, other so-called “small government” advocates (usually well-funded by the telecom industry) immediately began beating a drum for Big Government protectionism to stop EPB by pushing for a state law to ban or restrict publicly owned networks.

Lopez appears to be on board:

Our Legislature considered a bill this session that would repeal a state municipal broadband law that prohibits government-owned networks from expanding across their municipal borders. Thankfully, it failed in the House Business and Utilities Subcommittee, but it will undoubtedly be back again in future legislative sessions. The legislation is troubling because it will harm taxpayers and stifle private-sector competition and innovation.

Or more accurately, it will make sure Comcast and AT&T can ram usage caps and higher prices for worse service down the throats of Tennessee customers.

epb broadband prices

EPB’s broadband pricing. Higher discounts possible with bundling.

Lopez also plays fast and loose with the truth suggesting the Obama Administration handed EPB a $111.7 million federal grant to compete with Comcast and AT&T. In reality, that grant was for EPB to build a smart grid for its electricity network. That fiber-based grid is estimated to have avoided 124.7 million customer minutes of interruptions by better detection of power faults and better methods of rerouting power to restore service more quickly than in the past.

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

Public utilities can run smart grids and not sell television, broadband, and phone service, leaving that fiber network underutilized. EPB decided it could put that network to good use, and a recent study by University of Tennessee economist Bento Lobo found EPB’s fiber services helped generate between 2,800 and 5,200 new jobs and added $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local economy. That translates into $2,832-$3,762 per Hamilton County resident. That’s quite a return on a $111.7 million investment that was originally intended just to help keep the lights on.

So EPB’s presence in Chattanooga has not harmed taxpayers and has not driven either of its two largest competitors out of the city.

Lopez then wanders into an equally ridiculous premise – that minority communities want mobile Internet access, not the fiber to the home service EPB offers:

Not all consumers access the Internet the same way. According to the Pew Research Center, Hispanics and African-Americans are more likely to rely on mobile broadband than traditional wire-line service. Indeed, minority communities are even more likely than the population as a whole to use their smartphones to apply for jobs online.

[…] Additionally, just like people are getting rid of basic at-home telephone service, Americans, especially minorities, are getting rid of at-home broadband. In 2013, 70 percent of Americans had broadband at home. Just two years later, only 67 percent did. The decline was true across almost the entire demographic board, regardless of race, income category, education level or location. Indeed, in 2013, 16 percent of Hispanics said they relied only on their smartphones for Internet access, and by 2015 that figure was up to 23 percent.

That drop in at-home broadband isn’t because fewer Americans have access to wireless broadband, it’s because more are moving to a wireless-only model. The bureaucracy of government has trouble adapting to changes like these, which is why government-owned broadband systems are often technologically out of date before they’re finished.

But Lopez ignores a key finding of Pew’s research:

In some form, cost is the chief reason that non-adopters cite when permitted to identify more than one reason they do not have a home high-speed subscription. Overall, 66% of non-adopters point toward either the monthly service fee or the cost of the computer as a barrier to adoption.

What community broadband provides communities the big phone and cable companies don't.

So it isn’t that customers want to exclusively access Internet services over a smartphone, they don’t have much of a choice at the prices providers like Comcast and AT&T charge. Wireless-only broadband is also typically usage capped and so expensive that average families with both wired broadband and a smartphone still do most of their data-intensive usage from home or over Wi-Fi to protect their usage allowance.

EPB runs a true fiber to the home network, Comcast runs a hybrid fiber-coax network, and AT&T mostly relies on a hybrid fiber-copper phone wire network. Comcast and AT&T are technically out of date, not EPB.

Not one of Lopez’s arguments has withstood the scrutiny of checking his claims against the facts, and here is another fact-finding failure on his part:

Top EPB officials argue that residents in Bradley County are clambering for EPB-offered Internet service, but the truth is Bradley County is already served by multiple private Internet service providers. Indeed, statewide only 215,000 Tennesseans, or approximately 4 percent, don’t have broadband access. We must find ways to address the needs of those residents, but that’s not what this bill would do. This bill would promote government providers over private providers, harming taxpayers and consumers along the way.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

Outlined section shows Bradley County, Tenn., east of Chattanooga.

The Chattanoogan reported it far differently, talking with residents and local elected officials on the ground in the broadband-challenged county:

The legislation would remove territorial restrictions and provide the clearest path possible for EPB to serve customers and for customers to receive high-speed internet.

State Rep. Dan Howell, the former executive assistant to the county mayor of Bradley County, was in attendance and called broadband a “necessity” as he offered his full support to helping EPB, as did Tennessee State Senator Todd Gardenhire.

“We can finally get something done,” Senator Gardenhire said. “The major carriers, Charter, Comcast and AT&T, have an exclusive right to the area and they haven’t done anything about it.”

So while EPB’s proposed expansion threatened Comcast and AT&T sufficiently to bring out their lobbyists demanding a ban on such expansions in the state legislature, neither company has specific plans to offer service to unserved locations in the area. Only EPB has shown interest in expansion, and without taxpayer funds.

The facts just don’t tell the same story Lopez, AT&T, and Comcast tell and would like you to believe. EPB has demonstrated it is the best provider in Chattanooga, provides service customers want at a fair price, and represents the interests of the community, not Wall Street and investors Comcast and AT&T listen to almost exclusively. Lopez would do a better job for his group’s membership by telling the truth and not redistributing stale, disproven Big Telecom talking points.

Frontier Launches ‘Vantage’ Brand Bundles of TV, Broadband, and Phone

Phillip Dampier March 24, 2016 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Frontier, Video 6 Comments

vantage tvFrontier Communications customers lucky enough to live in an upgraded or recently acquired service area may soon be getting Frontier Vantage, a new suite of enhanced products including a multichannel TV package, faster broadband, and phone service.

Frontier Vantage started life in Frontier’s fiber to the home market trial in Durham, N.C., and is set to accompany, not replace, the Frontier FiOS and U-verse brands, starting in a wide rollout in Connecticut. Much like the XFINITY brand today co-exists with Comcast, Frontier intends its new Vantage brand to signify a premium experience. It is part of Frontier’s larger plan to introduce IPTV service in more than 40 of its larger markets across the country over the next four years, with an even larger presence in former Verizon service areas in Texas, Florida, and California.

In all, Frontier expects to offer the enhanced service to more than eight million of its customers after upgrades are finished.

Frontier’s biggest challenge will be getting Vantage service to customers in its legacy service areas, where its reliance on ADSL and its slow broadband speeds are often inadequate for a shared broadband and IPTV platform. In upgraded service areas, other challenges are appearing, including firm rejections of Vantage in multi-dwelling units where complex owners have signed multi-year exclusivity contracts with cable operators.

frontier new logo“As far as Durham goes, some of the initial learnings are that we were locked out in many cases of securing long-term contracts with some of the apartments and condominium owners in the market because we didn’t have a video product other than a mini head-end that was using satellite, which was not the preferred solution,” said Frontier CEO Dan McCarthy in February. “In the first several weeks of introducing the product, we’ve already secured new contracts that would be substantial units right out of the gate. Our door-to-door sales process has been very successful so far, but we’re in the early days — it’s only been really about a month or so.”

McKenney

McKenney

Much of the door knocking is taking place in Connecticut, where Vantage started replacing the older Frontier TV/U-verse platform on set-top boxes starting last Monday. Former AT&T customers have transitioned through three brand changes. Originally served by AT&T U-verse, Frontier’s acquisition of AT&T’s wireline facilities in the state introduced customers to Frontier U-verse/FrontierTV. As of this week, it is now VantageTV.

The new firmware introduces a Netflix “on-demand channel” (Ch. 800 in Connecticut) where subscribers can access Netflix content without having to use separate hardware like Chromecast or Roku. This is the first of several “apps” that Frontier will offer, allowing customers to reach Facebook, Twitter, home shopping, weather, and games over their set-top box.

Frontier also plans a ‘start-over’ feature that allows viewers to start at the beginning of a show already in progress, an enhanced on-screen program guide and easier access to a list of upcoming shows. A video-on-demand library will also be on offer, and Frontier claims it will include over 100,000 movies and TV shows.

Customers will also get a whole-home DVR that can record four shows at once on a 1TB hard drive. A limited number of markets will also be offered 4k video service.

Accompanying the TV package will be phone service and Internet access at speeds starting as 12Mbps up to 1,000Mbps, depending on the market and available infrastructure.

“This is the perfect time for Frontier to launch our premier products,” said Cecilia K. McKenney, executive vice president and chief customer officer and head of corporate marketing at Frontier. “‘Vantage’ conveys the ultimate customer experience and represents products and services that deliver value, solutions, and choice.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Frontier What is Vantage TV 3-24-16.mp4

Frontier introduces Vantage TV to customers in Connecticut formerly served by AT&T U-verse. This introductory video shows Frontier’s new set-top box firmware includes direct support for Netflix. (2:16)

The Newest “Diversity Group” to Support Time Warner Cable’s Corporate Agenda Is…

NGLCC_Color_Logo_wTagTime Warner Cable has a new friend from the “diversity” community.

This week, the National Gay & Lesbian Chamber of Commerce (NGLCC) announced it has a new corporate partner in Time Warner Cable.

“Time Warner Cable is excited to partner with NGLCC and we look forward to new opportunities as we expand our supplier diversity program with LGBT-owned businesses,” said David Wiehagen, TWC’s vice president and chief procurement officer. “As a long-time supporter of diversity and inclusion, we believe that working with diverse suppliers is reflective of our employee and customer population and truly benefits the business.”

What benefits the business often doesn’t benefit customers, however. Many of the groups financially supported by Time Warner Cable end up penning advocacy letters to regulators and elected officials that support the cable operator’s corporate agenda.

While a press release from the gay business organization claimed the partnership will help “elevate its supplier diversity programs among peers and colleagues,” in most cases these partnerships are more about trading favors, advocacy, and PR opportunities.

“Time Warner Cable is a leader within the telecommunications industry that stands at the forefront of diversity and inclusion initiatives,” said Justin Nelson, NGLCC co-founder and president. “We are thrilled to welcome Time Warner Cable as a corporate partner as we know their commitment to supply chain diversity is unwavering.”

In turn, the NGLCC has been an unwavering opponent of Net Neutrality, favors big telecom mergers like the failed AT&T/T-Mobile acquisition and has generally opposed expanding Internet-related consumer protection.

Tenn. Press Outraged By Charter’s Offer of Free Airtime for Politicians Protecting Cable Monopoly

Rep. Calfee

Rep. Calfee

“The sheer audacity of Charter Communications’ offer of free airtime to legislators following the defeat of a broadband access bill is breathtaking,” wrote the editors of the Knoxville News Sentinel in a heated editorial this week. “The spectacle of lawmakers accepting the offer would be revolting.”

The newspaper was responding to the optics of Charter Communications’ generous offer of free airtime for politicians willing to record “public service announcements” just a day after the Tennessee House Business & Utilities Subcommittee killed a bill that would have allowed public utilities to expand fiber broadband service outside of their current electric service area. If that bill became law, it had the potential of giving Charter the formidable competition AT&T, Frontier Communications, and CenturyLink have failed to deliver in Tennessee.

In an election year, anything that gives politicians exposure to voters is worth its weight in gold, which is why taxpayer-sponsored “newsletters” and “voter updates” fill voters’ mailboxes a few months before Election Day. Charter’s plan to saturate subscribers with dubious “PSAs with Politicians” during ad breaks is harder to ignore than another piece of campaign junk mail destined for the recycle bin.

Rep. Daniel

Rep. Daniel

Charter’s vague explanation it was going to offer the airtime before the Subcommittee vote only makes the scandal worse, because it means lawmakers were given advance notice they could be as well-recognized as Henry “The Fonz” Winkler selling reverse mortgages, circus animals and cheerleaders drumming up business for local car dealerships, and kids night at the local family restaurant — all too common tenants of the “local ad insertion” space cable companies get to make more money (or in this case win/reward influence) on the side.

But Charter’s plan appears to be backfiring, drawing unwanted attention on a cable operator Tennessee loves to hate. But more importantly, it gave the Knoxville press an opportunity to remind voters who the real villains of competition are: Republican Reps. Kent Calfee of Kingston and Martin Daniel of Knoxville — two local lawmakers on the Subcommittee voting with Charter, AT&T, and Comcast against their constituents pleading for more cable competition.

news sentinelThe local hero? Rep. Art Swann (R-Maryville) who voted yes (e-mail him a thank you note). He predicts the bill will be back.

The News Sentinel regards the love affair between Charter and lawmakers as compelling as a lunch date with Limburger cheese:

Actually, the stench emanating from the Capitol would indicate something worse than just bad appearances. Tempting lawmakers with free airtime during an election year — even if the commercial technically would not be a campaign ad — is like waving a treat above the snout of an obedient dog.

Charter has not commented on the matter, but its offer certainly gives at least the appearance of trading airtime for votes; surely legislators know better than to take him up on the offer. Tennesseans must hold lawmakers accountable if they do.

Readers can start by telling Reps. Calfee and Daniel they are watching them very closely on this issue and expect them to support public utility broadband expansion when the issue comes before them next time:

Rep. Kent Calfee
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 219 War Memorial Bldg.
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone: (615) 741-7658
Fax: (615) 253-0163
[email protected]
Rep. Martin Daniel
301 6th Avenue North
Suite 109 War Memorial Bldg.
Nashville, TN 37243
Phone: (615) 741-2287
Fax: (615) 253-0348
[email protected]

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