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Approval of AT&T-DirecTV Merger Expected Next Week

The headquarters building of U.S. satellite TV operator DirecTV is seen in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

The headquarters building of U.S. satellite TV operator DirecTV is seen in Los Angeles, California May 18, 2014. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – AT&T Inc’s proposed $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV is expected to get U.S. regulatory approval as soon as next week, according to people familiar with the matter, a decision that will combine the country’s No. 2 wireless carrier with the largest satellite-TV provider.

The Department of Justice, which assesses whether deals violate antitrust law, has completed its review of the merger and is waiting on the Federal Communications Commission to wrap up its own, according to three people familiar with the matter.

The FCC, which reviews if deals are in public interest, is poised to approve the deal with conditions as early as next week, according to three other people familiar with the matter.

All the sources asked not to be named because they were not authorized to speak with the media. An AT&T spokeswoman and FCC spokesman declined comment. Justice Department representatives were not immediately available for comment.

AT&T’s merger with DirecTV, announced in May 2014, would create the country’s largest pay-TV company, giving DirecTV a broadband product and AT&T new avenues of growth beyond the maturing and increasingly competitive wireless service.

The deal has been expected to pass regulatory muster in contrast with the rival mega-merger between cable and Internet providers Comcast and Time Warner Cable, which was rejected in April largely over the combined companies’ reach into the broadband market.

The FCC and AT&T have been in negotiations over conditions for the merger for several weeks, the people said, adding that none of the conditions are controversial enough to break the deal.

Those conditions are expected to include assurances that both middle-class and low-income Americans have access to affordable high-speed Internet, including an offering of broadband subscriptions as a standalone service without a TV bundle, according to two of the people.

AT&T has earlier committed to expand access to broadband service in rural areas and to offer standalone Internet service at speeds of at least 6 Megabits per second to ensure consumers can access rival video services online, such as Netflix.

FCC officials are also considering ways to ensure that the conditions are properly enforced in the future, possibly through a third-party monitor, according to the two sources.

The FCC is also weighing how to ensure the merged companies abide by the so-called net neutrality rules, which regulate how Internet service providers manage traffic on their networks.

AT&T has promised to abide by net neutrality principles such as no-blocking of traffic, but is challenging in court the FCC’s newest net neutrality regulations that have expanded the agency’s authority over various deals between Internet providers and content companies.

FCC reviewers are weighing what net neutrality-related conditions to apply to the merger and how to address the possibility that the court throws out the latest rules, the two sources said.

Reported by: Alina Selyukh and Diane Bartz

Big City Telecom Infrastructure is Often Ancient: Conduits 70+ Years Old, Wiring from 1960s-1980s

A panel electromechanical switch similar to those in use in New York until the 1970s.

A panel electromechanical switch similar to those in use in New York until the 1970s. They were installed in the 1920s.

As late as the 1970s, New York Telephone (today Verizon) was still maintaining electromechanical panel switches in its telephone exchanges that were developed in the middle of World War I and installed in Manhattan between 1922-1930. Reliance on infrastructure 40-50 years old is nothing new for telephone companies across North America. A Verizon technician in New York City is just as likely to descend into tunnels constructed well before they were born as is a Bell technician in Toronto.

Slightly marring last week’s ambitious announcement Bell (Canada) was going to commence an upgrade to fiber to the home service across the Greater Toronto Area came word from a frank Bell technician in attendance who predicted Bell’s plans were likely to run into problems as workers deal with aging copper infrastructure originally installed by their fathers and grandfathers decades earlier.

The technician said some of the underground conduits he was working in just weeks earlier in Toronto’s downtown core were “easily 60-70 years old” and the existing optical fiber cables running through some of them were installed in the mid-1980s.

At least that conduit contained fiber. In many other cities, copper infrastructure from the 1960s-1980s is still in service, performing unevenly in some cases and not much at all in others.

Earlier this year, several hundred Verizon customers were without telephone service for weeks because of water intrusion into copper telephone cables, possibly amplified by the corrosive road salt dumped on New York streets to combat a severe winter. Verizon’s copper was down and out while its fiber optic network was unaffected. On the west coast, AT&T deals with similar outages caused by flooding. If that doesn’t affect service, copper theft might.

munifiber

Fiber optic cable

Telephone companies fight to get their money’s worth from infrastructure, no matter how old it is. Western Electric first envisioned the panel switches used in New York City telephone exchanges until the end of the Carter Administration back in 1916. It was all a part of AT&T’s revolutionary plan to move to subscriber-dialed calls, ending an era of asking an operator to connect you to another customer.

AT&T engineer W.G. Blauvelt wrote the plan that moved New York to fully automatic dialing. By 1930, every telephone exchange in Manhattan was served by a panel switch that allowed customers to dial numbers by themselves. But Blauvelt could not have envisioned that equipment would still be in use fifty years later.

As demand for telephones grew, the phone company did not expand its network of panel switches, which were huge – occupying entire buildings – loud, and very costly to maintain. It did not replace them either. Instead, newer exchanges got the latest equipment, starting with more modern Crossbar #1 switches in 1938. In the 1950s, Crossbar #5 arrived and it became a hit worldwide. Crossbar #5 switches usually stood alone or worked alongside older switching equipment in fast growing exchanges. It occupied less space, worked well without obsessive maintenance, and was reliable.

It was not until the 1970s that the Bell System decided to completely scrap their electromechanical switches in favor of newer electronic technology. The advantages were obvious — the newer equipment occupied a fraction of the space and had considerably more capacity than older switches. That became critical in New York starting in the late 1960s when customer demand for additional phone lines exploded. New York Telephone simply could not keep up with and waiting lists often grew to weeks as technicians looked for spare capacity. The Bell System’s answer to this growth was a new generation of electronic switches.

The #1 ESS was an analog electronic switch first introduced in New Jersey in 1965. Although it worked fine in smaller and medium-sized communities, the switch’s software bugs were notorious when traffic on the exchange reached peak loads. It was clear to New York Telephone the #1 ESS was not ready for Manhattan until the bugs were squashed.

Bell companies, along with some independent phone companies that depended on the same equipment, moved cautiously to begin upgrades. It would take North American phone companies until August 2001 to retire what was reportedly the last electromechanical switch, serving the small community of Nantes, Quebec.

ATT-New-York-central-office-fire-300x349

A notorious 1975 fire destroyed a phone exchange serving lower Manhattan. That was one way to guarantee an upgrade from New York Telephone.

On rare occasions, phone companies didn’t have much of a choice. The most notorious example of this was the Feb. 27, 1975 fire in the telephone exchange located at 204 Second Avenue and East 13th Street in New York. The five alarm fire destroyed the switching equipment and knocked out telephone service for 173,000 customers before 700 firefighters from 72 fire units managed to put the fire out more than 16 hours later. That fire is still memorialized today by New York firefighters because it injured nearly 300 of them. But the fire’s legacy continued for decades as long-term health effects, including cancer, from the toxic smoke would haunt those who fought it.

The New York Telephone building still stands and today also houses a street level Verizon Wireless retail store.

New York Telephone engineers initially rescued a decommissioned #1 Crossbar switch waiting to be melted down for scrap. It came from the West 18th Street office and was cleaned and repaired and put into emergency service until a #1 ESS switch originally destined for another central office was diverted. This part of Manhattan got its upgrade earlier for all the wrong reasons.

Throughout the Bell System in the 1970s and 80s, older switches were gradually replaced in favor of all electronic switches, especially the #5 ESS, introduced in 1982 and still widely in service today, serving about 50% of all landlines in the United States. Canadian telephone companies often favored telephone switches manufactured by Northern Telecom (Nortel), based in Mississauga, Ontario. They generally worked equally well as the American counterpart and are also in service in parts of the United States.

The legacy of more than 100 years of telephone service has made running old and new technology side by side nothing unusual for telephone companies. It has worked for them before, as has their belief in incremental upgrades. So Bell’s announcement it would completely blanket Toronto with all-fiber service is a departure from standard practice.

For Bell in Toronto, the gigabit upgrade will begin by pushing fiber cables through existing conduits that are also home to copper and fiber wiring still in service. If a conduit is blocked or lacks enough room to get new fiber cables through, the Bell technician predicted delays. It is very likely that sometime after fiber service is up and running, copper wire decommissioning will begin in Toronto. Whether those cables remain dormant underground and on phone poles for cost reasons or torn out and sold for scrap will largely depend on scrap copper prices, Bell’s budget, and possible regulator intervention.

But Bell’s upgrade will clearly be as important, if not more so, than the retirement of mechanical phone switches a few decades earlier. For the same reasons — decreased maintenance costs, increased capacity, better reliability, and the possibility to market new services for revenue generation make fiber just as good of an investment for Bell as electronic switches were in the 1970s and 1980s.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/ATT Reconnecting 170000 Phone Customers in NYC After a Major Fire 1975.mp4

AT&T produced this documentary in the mid-1970s about how New York Telephone recovered from a fire that destroyed a phone exchange in lower Manhattan and wiped out service for 173,000 customers in 1975. The phone company managed to get service restored after an unprecedented three weeks. It gives viewers a look at the enormous size of old electromechanical switching equipment and masses of phone wiring. (22:40) 

The ISP Defense Squad Attacks Guardian Story on Internet Slowdowns

Phillip "Speaking as a Customer" Dampier

Phillip “Speaking as a Customer” Dampier

Two defenders of large Internet Service Providers are coming to the defense of the broadband industry by questioning a Guardian article that reported major Internet Service Providers were intentionally allowing a degradation in performance of Content Delivery Networks and other high volume Internet traffic in a dispute over money.

Richard Bennett and Dan Rayburn today both published articles attempting to discredit Battle for the Net’s effort highlighting the impact interconnection disputes can have on consumers.

Rayburn:

On Monday The Guardian ran a story with a headline stating that major Internet providers are slowing traffic speeds for thousands of consumers in North America. While that’s a title that’s going to get a lot of people’s attention, it’s not accurate. Even worse, other news outlets like Network World picked up on the story, re-hashed everything The Guardian said, but then mentioned they could not find the “study” that The Guardian is talking about. The reason they can’t find the report is because it does not exist.

[…] Even if The Guardian article was trying to use data collected via the BattlefortheNet website, they don’t understand what data is actually being collected. That data is specific to problems at interconnection points, not inside the last mile networks. So if there isn’t enough capacity at an interconnection point, saying ISPs are “slowing traffic speeds” is not accurate. No ISP is slowing down the speed of the consumers’ connection to the Internet as that all takes place inside the last mile, which is outside of the interconnection points. Even the Free Press isn’t quoted as saying ISPs are “slowing” down access speed, but rather access to enough capacity at connection points.

Bennett:

In summary, it appears that Battle for the Net may have cooked up some dubious tests to support their predetermined conclusion that ISPs are engaging in evil, extortionate behavior.

It may well be the case that they want to, but AT&T, Verizon, Charter Cable, Time Warner Cable, Brighthouse, and several others have merger business and spectrum auction business pending before the FCC. If they were manipulating customer experience in such a malicious way during the pendency of the their critical business, that would constitute executive ineptitude on an enormous scale. The alleged behavior doesn’t make customers stick around either.

I doubt the ISPs are stupid enough to do what the Guardian says they’re doing, and a careful examination of the available test data says that Battle for the Net is actually cooking the books. There is no way a long haul bandwidth and latency test says a thing about CDN performance. Now it could be that Battle for the Net has as a secret test that actually measures CDNs, but if so it’s certainly a well-kept one. Stay tuned.

The higher line measures speeds received by Comcast customers. The lower line represents speeds endured by AT&T customers, as measured by MLab.

The higher line measures speeds received by Comcast customers connecting to websites handled by GTT in Atlanta. The lower line represents speeds endured by AT&T customers, as measured by MLab.

Stop the Cap! was peripherally mentioned in Rayburn’s piece because we originally referenced one of the affected providers as a Content Delivery Network (CDN). In fact, GTT is a Tier 1 IP Network, providing service to CDNs, among others — a point we made in a correction prompted by one of our readers yesterday.

Both Rayburn and Bennett scoff at Battle for the Net’s methodology, results, and conclusion your Internet Service Provider might care more about money than keeping customers satisfied with decent Internet speeds. Bennett alludes to the five groups backing the Battle for the Net campaign as “comrades” and Rayburn comes close to suggesting the Guardian piece represented journalistic malpractice.

Much was made of the missing “study” that the Guardian referenced in its original piece. Stop the Cap! told readers in our original story we did not have a copy to share either, but would update the story once it became available.

We published our own story because we were able to find, without much difficulty, plenty of raw data collected by MLab from consumers conducting voluntary Internet Health Tests, on which Battle for the Net drew its conclusions about network performance. A review of that data independently confirmed all the performance assertions made in the Guardian story, with or without a report. There are obvious and undeniable significant differences in performance between certain Internet Service Providers and traffic distribution networks like GTT.

So let’s take a closer look at the issues Rayburn and Bennett either dispute or attempt to explain away:

  1. MLab today confirmed there is a measurable and clear problem with ISPs serving around 75% of Americans that apparently involves under-provisioned interconnection capacity. That means the connection your ISP has with some content distributors is inadequate to handle the amount of traffic requested by customers. Some very large content distributors like Netflix increasingly use their own Content Delivery Networks, while others rely on third-party distributors to move that content for them. But the problem affects more than just high traffic video websites. If Stop the Cap! happens to reach you through one of these congested traffic networks and your ISP won’t upgrade that connection without compensation, not only will video traffic suffer slowdowns and buffering, but so will traffic from every other website, including ours, that happens to be sent through that same connection.

MLab: "Customers of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon all saw degraded performance [in NYC] during peak use hours when connecting across transit ISPs GTT and Tata. These patterns were most dramatic for customers of Comcast and Verizon when connecting to GTT, with a low speed of near 1 Mbps during peak hours in May. None of the three experienced similar problems when connecting with other transit providers, such as Internap and Zayo, and Cablevision did not experience the same extent of problems."

MLab: “Customers of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon all saw degraded performance [in NYC] during peak use hours when connecting across transit ISPs GTT and Tata. These patterns were most dramatic for customers of Comcast and Verizon when connecting to GTT, with a low-speed of near 1 Mbps during peak hours in May. None of the three experienced similar problems when connecting with other transit providers, such as Internap and Zayo, and Cablevision did not experience the same extent of problems.”

MLab:

Our initial findings show persistent performance degradation experienced by customers of a number of major access ISPs across the United States during the first half of 2015. While the ISPs involved differ, the symptoms and patterns of degradation are similar to those detailed in last year’s Interconnections study: decreased download throughput, increased latency and increased packet loss compared to the performance through different access ISPs in the same region. In nearly all cases degradation was worse during peak use hours. In last year’s technical report, we found that peak-hour degradation was an indicator of under-provisioned interconnection capacity whose shortcomings are only felt when traffic grows beyond a certain threshold.

Patterns of degraded performance occurred across the United States, impacting customers of various access ISPs when connecting to measurement points hosted within a number of transit ISPs in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Many of these access-transit ISP pairs have not previously been available for study using M-Lab data. In September, 2014, several measurement points were added in transit networks across the United States, making it possible to measure more access-transit ISP interconnection points. It is important to note that while we are able to observe and record these episodes of performance degradation, nothing in the data allows us to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the performance degradation. We leave determining the underlying cause of the degradation to others, and focus solely on the data, which tells us about consumer conditions irrespective of cause.

Rayburn attempts to go to town highlighting MLab’s statement that the data does not allow it to draw conclusions about who is responsible for the traffic jam. But any effort to extend that to a broader conclusion the Guardian article is “bogus” is folly. MLab’s findings clearly state there is a problem affecting the consumer’s Internet experience. To be fair, Rayburn’s view generally accepts there are disputes involving interconnection agreements, but he defends the current system that requires IP networks sending more traffic than they return to pay the ISP for a better connection.

Rayburn's website refers to him as "the voice of industry."

Rayburn’s website refers to him as “the voice of industry.”

  1. Rayburn comes to the debate with a different perspective than ours. Rayburn’s website highlights the fact he is the “voice of the industry.” He also helped launch the industry trade group Streaming Video Alliance, which counts Comcast as one of its members. Anyone able to afford the dues for sponsor/founding member ($25,000 annually); full member ($12,500); or supporting member ($5,500) can join.

Stop the Cap! unreservedly speaks only for consumers. In these disputes, paying customers are the undeniable collateral damage when Internet slowdowns occur and more than a few are frequently inconvenienced by congestion-related slowdowns.

It is our view that allowing paying customers to be caught in the middle of these disputes is a symptom of the monopoly/duopoly marketplace broadband providers enjoy. In any industry where competition demands a provider deliver an excellent customer experience, few would ever allow these kinds of disputes to alienate customers. In Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, for example, AT&T has evidently made a business decision to allow its connections with GTT to degrade to just a fraction of the performance achieved by other providers. Nothing else explains consistent slowdowns that have affected AT&T U-verse and DSL customers for months on end that involve GTT while Comcast customers experience none of those problems.

We also know why this is happening because AT&T and GTT have both confirmed it to Ars Technica, which covered this specific slowdown back in March. As is always the case about these disputes, it’s all about the money:

AT&T is seeking money from network operators and won’t upgrade capacity until it gets paid. Under its peering policy, AT&T demands payment when a network sends more than twice as much traffic as it receives.

“Some providers are sending significantly more than twice as much traffic as they are receiving at specific interconnection points, which violates our peering policy that has been in place for years,” AT&T told Ars. “We are engaged in commercial-agreement discussions, as is typical in such situations, with several ISPs and Internet providers regarding this imbalanced traffic and possible solutions for augmenting capacity.”

competitionMissing from this discussion are AT&T customers directly affected by slowdowns. AT&T’s attitude seems uninterested in the customer experience and the company feels safe stonewalling GTT until it gets a check in the mail. It matters less that AT&T customers have paid $40, 50, even 70 a month for high quality Internet service they are not getting.

In a more competitive marketplace, we believe no ISP would ever allow these disputes to impact paying subscribers, because a dissatisfied customer can cancel service and switch providers. That is much less likely if you are an AT&T DSL customer with no cable competition or if your only other choice cannot offer the Internet speed you need.

  1. Consolidating the telecommunications industry will only guarantee these problems will get worse. If AT&T is allowed to merge with DirecTV and expand Internet service to more customers in rural areas where cable broadband does not reach, does that not strengthen AT&T’s ability to further stonewall content providers? Of course it does. In fact, even a company the size of Netflix eventually relented and wrote a check to Comcast to clear up major congestion problems experienced by Comcast customers in 2014. Comcast could have solved the problem itself for the benefit of its paying customers, but refused. The day Netflix’s check arrived, problems with Netflix magically disappeared.

More mergers and more consolidation does not enhance competition. It entrenches big ISPs to play more aggressive hardball with content providers at the expense of consumers.

Even Rayburn concedes these disputes are “not about ‘fairness,’ it’s business,” he writes. “Some pay based on various business terms, others might not. There is no law against it, no rule that prohibits it.”

Battle for the Net’s point may be that there should be.

Cable Companies Demand Satellite Providers Pay Up; Customer Bills Expected to Rise

directvTwo cable industry trade associations have asked the Federal Communications Commission to start collecting more fees from satellite television operators to cover the FCC’s regulatory expenses — a move satellite providers argue will cause consumers to suffer bill shock from increased prices.

The American Cable Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association have filed comments with the FCC asking the commission to impose the same regulatory fees on satellite subscribers that cable companies are likely to pay in 2015 — 95 cents a year per subscriber.

The FCC has proposed initially charging satellite operators $0.12 this year per customer, or about one cent a month. The two cable lobbying groups want that 12 cent fee doubled to 24 cents and then raised an additional 24 cents each year until it reaches parity with what cable companies pay.

dish logo“The FCC is off to a good start by declaring that Dish and DirecTV should pay regulatory fees to support the work of the agency’s Media Bureau for the first time and proposing setting the initial per subscriber fee at one cent per month in 2015,” said Matthew Polka, president and CEO of the ACA. “But given the FCC proposes that cable operators pay nearly 8 cents per month, per customer, it must do more, including requiring these two multibillion dollar companies with national reach to shoulder more of the fee burden next year that is now disproportionately borne by smaller, locally based cable operators.”

The satellite industry has filed their own comments with the FCC objecting to any significant fee increases, claiming it will cause consumers to experience bill shock and that satellite companies pose less of a regulatory burden on the FCC in comparison to cable operators.

The ACA counters that even if the satellite companies were required to pay the full 95 cents this year — the same rate small independent cable operators pay — it would add a trivial $0.08 a month to customer bills — less than a 0.4% increase on the lowest priced introductory offer sold by satellite providers.

fccThe ACA reminded the FCC it did not seem too concerned about rate shock when it imposed a 99 cent fee on IPTV providers like AT&T U-verse in 2014 without a phase-in.

DirecTV and Dish argue the FCC has jurisdiction over cable’s television, phone and Internet packages — a more complex assortment of services. Satellite providers currently only sell television service, so charging the same fee cable companies pay would be disproportionate and unfair, both claim.

Despite the sudden introduction of the IPTV fee last year, AT&T managed to use the opportunity to turn lemons into lemonade.

AT&T added a “Regulatory Video Cost Recovery Charge” on customers’ bills after the FCC assessed a 99 cent fee on IPTV services like U-verse in 2014. But AT&T charged nearly three times more than what it actually owed. U-verse customers were billed $0.24 a month/$2.88 in 2014 for “regulatory fee cost recovery.” But AT&T only paid the FCC $0.99 for each of its 5.7 million customers. It kept the remaining $1.89 for itself, amounting to $10,773,000 in excess profit.

This year the FCC expects to collect $0.95 from each U-verse subscriber, a four cent decline.

AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable Implicated In Content Delivery Network Slowdowns

fat cat attIf your YouTube, Netflix, or Amazon Video experience isn’t what it should be, your Internet Service Provider is likely to blame.

A consumer group today implicated several major Internet providers including Comcast, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon in an Internet slowdown scheme that prevented customers from getting the broadband performance they are paying for.

A study* of 300,000 Internet users conducted by Battleforthenet found evidence some of America’s largest providers are not adequately providing connectivity for Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) that supply high-capacity traffic coming from the Internet’s most popular websites.

Significant performance degradation was measured on the networks of the five largest American ISPs, which provide Internet connectivity for 75% of U.S. households.

“For too long, Internet access providers and their lobbyists have characterized Net Neutrality protections as a solution in search of a problem,” Tim Karr from Free Press told the Guardian newspaper, which had advance notice of the study. “Data compiled using the Internet Health Test show us otherwise – that there is widespread and systemic abuse across the network. The irony is that this trove of evidence is becoming public just as many in Congress are trying to strip away the open Internet protections that would prevent such bad behavior.”

freepressThe study revealed network performance issues that would typically be invisible to most broadband customers performing generic speed tests to measure their Internet speed. The Open Technology Institute’s M-Lab devised a more advanced speed test that would compare the performance of high traffic CDNs across several providers. CDNs were created to reduce the distance between a customer and the content provider and balance high traffic loads more evenly to reduce congestion. The shorter the distance a Netflix movie has to cross, for example, the less of a chance network problems will disrupt a customer’s viewing.

If technicians controlled the Internet, the story would end there. But it turns out money has gotten between Internet engineers with intentions of moving traffic as efficiently as possible and the executives who want to be paid something extra to carry the traffic their customers want.

That may explain why Comcast can deliver 21.4Mbps median download speeds for traffic distributed by a CDN Tier1 IP network called GTT to customers in Atlanta, while AT&T only managed to squeeze through around 200kbps — one-fifth of 1Mbps. It turns out AT&T’s connection with GTT may be maxed out and AT&T will not upgrade capacity to a network that sends AT&T customers more than twice the traffic it receives from them without direct compensation from GTT.

Internet traffic jam, at least for AT&T customers in Atlanta trying to access content delivered by GTT.

Internet traffic jam, at least for AT&T customers in Atlanta trying to reach content delivered by GTT.

An AT&T U-verse customer in Atlanta would probably not attribute the poor performance depicted in M-Lab’s performance test directly to AT&T because Internet responsiveness for other websites would likely appear normal. Customers might blame the originating website instead. But M-Lab’s performance results shows the trouble is limited to AT&T, not other providers like Comcast.

AT&T: Slow down, you move too fast.

AT&T: Slow down, you move too fast.

The issues of performance and peering agreements that provide enough capacity to meet demand are close cousins of Net Neutrality, which is supposed to prevent content producers from being forced to pay for assurances their traffic will reach end users. But that seems to be exactly what AT&T is asking for from GTT.

“It would be unprecedented and unjustified to force AT&T to provide free backbone services to other backbone carriers and edge providers, as Cogent et al seek,” AT&T wrote in response to a request from several CDNs to disallow AT&T’s merger with DirecTV. “Nor is there any basis for requiring AT&T to augment network capacity for free and without any limits. Opponents’ proposals would shift the costs of their services onto all AT&T subscribers, many of whom do not use Opponents’ services, and would harm consumers.”

* – When a copy of the study becomes publicly available, we will supply a link to it.

Correction: It is more accurate to describe GTT as a “Tier1 IP network” which supplies services to CDN’s, among others. More detail on what GTT does can be found here.

AT&T Slapped With $100 Million FCC Fine for Deceiving Customers About “Unlimited Data”

fccAT&T violated the transparency rules of the Federal Communications Commission not less than a million times by allegedly deceiving customers about an unlimited data plan that was speed throttled to unusability after as little as 3GB of usage a month. As a result, the FCC today fined AT&T $100,000,000.

“Consumers deserve to get what they pay for,” said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler. “Broadband providers must be upfront and transparent about the services they provide. The FCC will not stand idly by while consumers are deceived by misleading marketing materials and insufficient disclosure.”

From the Notice of Apparent Liability:

Based on the facts and circumstances before us, we find that AT&T apparently willfully and repeatedly violated Section 8.3 of the Commission’s Rules by:

  1. using the term “unlimited” in a misleading and inaccurate way to label a data plan that was in fact subject to prolonged speed reductions after a customer used a set amount of data; and
  2. failing to disclose the data throughput speed caps it imposed on customers under the MBR policy.

In short:

“Unlimited means unlimited,” said FCC Enforcement Bureau chief Travis LeBlanc. “As today’s action demonstrates, the Commission is committed to holding accountable those broadband providers who fail to be fully transparent about data limits.”

This is the largest proposed fine in FCC history, according to a senior FCC official. The official told the Wall Street Journal AT&T made billions of dollars off the practice.

Wheeler

Wheeler

Thousands of AT&T customers have complained about the practice and feel misled about the company limiting an unlimited use plan.

“A provider cannot announce something in large type that it contradicts in fine print; such practices would be inherently misleading to consumers, and, therefore contrary to both the spirit and letter of the Open Internet Transparency Rule,” the FCC notice states.

The FCC’s two minority Republican commissioners strongly disagreed with the action against AT&T. Ajit Pai used his dissent to cut and paste large sections of AT&T’s website in defense of the company.

“Because the Commission simply ignores many of the disclosures AT&T made; because it refuses to grapple with the few disclosures it does acknowledge; because it essentially rewrites the transparency rule ex post by imposing specific requirements found nowhere in the 2010 Net Neutrality Order; because it disregards specific language in that order and related precedents that condone AT&T’s conduct; because the penalty assessed is drawn out of thin air; in short, because the justice dispensed here condemns a private actor not only in innocence but also in ignorance, I dissent,” Pai wrote.

att-logo-221x300Commissioner Michael O’Rielly dissented because he felt the FCC was overreacting to AT&T’s throttling program and assumed harm was done to every customer affected by it.

“I firmly believe that the Commission must take the necessary steps to enforce its regulations,” O’Rielly wrote. “But, it is equally important that the Commission’s enforcement procedures be fair and equitable. Licensees must have faith in the process and trust that the government is working in a sound and just manner, instead of vilifying them, or demanding that they incriminate themselves.”

“We will vigorously dispute the FCC’s assertions,” said Michael Balmoris, an AT&T spokesman. “The FCC has specifically identified this practice as a legitimate and reasonable way to manage network resources for the benefit of all customers. We have been fully transparent with our customers” and exceeded FCC disclosure requirements, Balmoris said.

AT&T only imposes its speed throttle on unlimited data plan customers who exceed 3GB of usage. Customers on usage-based billing plans do not face a speed throttle after exceeding 3GB of usage.

CBS’ Idea of Choice: $5.99/Mo for CBS Library and Live Local CBS Station Streaming

broken bankThink you are already paying too much for cable television? If you thought Comcast charges too much, consider what CBS thinks is fair to charge for an on-demand library of CBS shows and a single live stream of your local CBS station – $5.99 a month.

Retransmission consent disputes are all about the money. As your local provider fights with a local station or cable network over their latest demand for more money, channels get dropped, providers get blamed and the content owners get richer when networks are restored.

One of the richest of all is CBS, which has told investors it plans to empty $2 billion from the pockets of American cable customers by the year 2020, up from $500 million in 2013. Not only will CBS demand new programming fees from its affiliates, it is also cajoling stations to demand not less than $1.75 a month from every cable subscriber for access to the local CBS over the air station.

Each time a retransmission consent contract comes up for renewal, cable operators know as certain as the sun will rise from the east that programmers will demand a healthy rate increase for the next contract period. That is why many cable companies now look to broadband for much of their future profits, because the TV business is getting very expensive when everyone has their hand out looking for more.

Some cable companies want an end to being stuck in the middle of these disputes and are supporting a plan to compel programmers like CBS, ESPN, TNT, HBO, and all the rest to publish a retail rate for their channel or network and let consumers decide whether it is worth the asking price.

cable-inflation-comparison

A proposal introduced last year called “Local Choice” would start the process with local television stations, which have demanded ever-higher carriage fees over the last 10 years, especially for network-affiliated stations.

Under the concept, customers would be given a choice of local stations by their provider. Theoretically, a customer could subscribe to CBS and ABC and tell NBC (and its local affiliate) to take a hike if they demanded too much. Another might be happy just paying for FOX and grab the rabbit ears for anything else they wanted to watch over the air for free.

Rockefeller

Rockefeller

No local station or network would voluntarily say goodbye to the golden goose that lays compulsory retransmission consent fees programmers currently collect from every cable subscriber, so last summer Congress proposed to mandate the concept in a clause of the Satellite Television Access and Viewer Rights Act (STAVRA).

Then Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) and Ranking Member John Thune (R-S.D.) beat the bipartisan drum loudly for change. But lobbyists also had drums. Rockefeller and Thune began wavering almost immediately.

“During the last month, Chairman Rockefeller and Ranking Member Thune have successfully begun a discussion on Local Choice, which would empower TV viewers, maintain our policy of broadcast localism, and ensure TV stations get fairly compensated for the retransmission of their signals,” read a joint statement issued last September. “Because it is a big and bold idea, Local Choice deserves more discussion and a full consideration by policymakers, and the committee may not have time to include it as part of STAVRA. Rockefeller and Thune are focused on passing STAVRA next week, and continuing to work with their colleagues on Local Choice.”

After the sudden insertion of Local Choice into a satellite television bill, an orange glow filled the night sky at 1771 N Street in Washington. It was Gordon Brown’s hair on fire. Brown is president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), the very powerful lobby representing television stations and networks. But that night, he sounded exactly like a cable guy.

“NAB opposes this proposal because it eliminates the basic [cable] tier upon which millions rely for access to lifeline information,” Brown responded in a statement. “It proposes a broadcast a-la-carte scheme that will lead to higher prices and less program diversity. Furthermore, STAVRA appears to confer unfettered and unprecedented authority for government intervention into private marketplace negotiations.”

8679-2_NAB_logos_csThe cable industry has fought its own battle against a-la-carte on exactly the same ground Brown was now occupying.

Rockefeller later claimed he was only poking the Broadcast TV Bear to provoke a response, and he got one. The idea of Local Choice was stripped out of the bill by the fall. Rockefeller was reduced to saving face.

“What we wanted to do was introduce those ideas,” Rockefeller later told The Hill. “We made it sound like it was the focus of the bill, and K Street just went crazy, which is always good. But we knew that we’d have to take it out.”

Yes they did, after the NAB and their allies launched a major PR campaign against Local Choice, attracting over 130,000 comments against the plan.

Polka

Polka

But Rockefeller knew the idea was not going away.

“As people get a taste of being able to say ‘I only watch 10 channels so I should only pay for 10 channels,’ they’re going to love that. It’s going to spread like wildfire,” Rockefeller said.

Fast forward to this spring and it was back to business as usual. Retransmission consent disputes yanked several networks and stations off cable systems, providers mailed their annual rate increase notices, and the cable industry’s popularity and reputation with customers now rivaled ISIS.

Much of the collateral damage (apart from the collective emptying of your wallet) continues to be felt by America’s smallest cable operators that cannot negotiate for what passes as fair and reasonable programming rates from networks like ESPN and CBS. They cannot qualify for volume discounts that are so compelling, it drove AT&T (U-verse TV) into the arms of DirecTV just to get enough subscribers to knock a few more cents off the monthly price of regional sports channels. Only the biggest players in the game have the power and get the savings.

Matthew Polka, president of the American Cable Association (ACA), the other cable trade association representing the interests of small, often family owned cable systems, may not have the most power but he could have the strongest argument against the status quo. While the National Association of Broadcasters spent tens of thousands of dollars arguing today’s retransmission consent system works just fine, some of America’s smaller TV stations apparently didn’t read the NAB’s talking points.

GotchaThe “TV Station Group,” an informal collective of small market TV stations seeking a renewal of their carriage contract with DirecTV has been stonewalled by DirecTV for months. Last week, the station owners filed a complaint with the FCC asking them to stop or block AT&T’s merger with DirecTV until the satellite provider agreed to negotiate in good faith. It was clear from their filing DirecTV’s idea of negotiation is to send ‘take it or leave it’ nastygrams to the TV stations, serving markets like Spokane, Wash., and Yuma, Ariz. The only thing clear from the back and forth is that DirecTV has no doubt it can squash the stations like little bugs:

[W]e will not fall victim to your silly and obvious tactics to try to audit our retrans deals so you can see them all. We did not ask you to send to us your supposed rates, and your unilateral decision to do so doesn’t give you the right to see our other deals. But trust [us], no other station group – especially small groups such as Northwest – are paid by DIRECTV nearly what you have proposed, let alone what your sheet says.

A few weeks later, in response to another request from the broadcasters, DirecTV scolded them like a misbehaving teenager:

To repeat yet again, DIRECTV is not going to get pulled into your transparent trap to define what is ‘market’ by seeing our other deals. That is a precedent we will not set, including for NW. Please do not ask again.

“Judging from the TV stations’ complaint, it is evident that the retransmission consent market is broken and not working for these broadcasters any better than for cable operators,” Polka wrote in a press release issued today. “The time has come for these TV stations and others that have also filed good faith complaints to step out from NAB’s long shadow and join ACA in supporting efforts to update the rules and equip them with a strong referee that can help protect consumers and competition when negotiations break down.”

Polka continues to advocate letting customers decide whether they want to pay for local stations and cable networks. He argues CBS is already doing that today with its All Access program for broadband customers. In 94 markets, serving 64% of U.S. households, consumers can voluntarily subscribe to a live stream of their local CBS station and access a large 6,500 title on-demand library of CBS content for $5.99 a month.

cbs all accessNobody besides CBS knows how many have agreed to pay for All Access, but executives have told investors they are pleased with how the program is working. Still, Marc DeBevoise, executive vice president and general manager of CBS Digital Media at CBS Interactive knows he walks a very fine line promoting a product that could eventually undermine CBS’s current commitment to today’s retransmission consent system. DeBevoise told The Drum it does not market or intend to offer All Access as an alternative to the current cable model.

“At a high level, our strategy in launching CBS All Access was two-fold. First, to delivery our best fans access to the most CBS content we could on any device at any time – really delivering a service for our ‘superfans,'” DeBevoise said. “Additionally this service enables us to reach ‘cord-nevers’ that want to watch CBS content but don’t have a traditional cable package –a significant audience, with industry estimates ranging from 6.5 to 16 million households.”

But at $5.99 a month, that price may prove too steep for many casual viewers looking only for a show or two. Many viewers now rely on ad-supported Hulu, a project of the major American broadcast networks except CBS. Most Hulu customers watch their favorite network shows for free. The future possibility of paying $6 for each of four major American broadcast networks will likely be seen as out of line, especially by more casual viewers.

But for Polka and ACA member cable systems, the idea that customers will direct their All Access price shock wrath out on CBS, not the cable company, may be worth it.

Hometown Newspaper of Charter Communications Warns Time Warner Deal Not in the Public Interest

Editor’s Note: This editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch is reprinted in its entirety. It comes from a newspaper that has covered Charter Communications since its inception. The Post-Dispatch reporters are also some of Charter’s subscribers — the cable company serves all of metropolitan St. Louis. Charter has never been received particularly well in St. Louis and in other cities where it provides generally mediocre service. Communities across Missouri that have endured poor cable and broadband service have recently taken a serious look at doing something about this by building their own public broadband networks as an alternative. But big money telecom interests, especially AT&T, have found it considerably less expensive to lobby to ban these networks from ever getting off the ground than spending the money to upgrade networks to compete.

charter twc bhOn May 15, the last day of this year’s session of the Missouri Legislature, House Bill 437 finally was assigned to a committee, where it promptly died. Given the power of the American Legislative Exchange Council, it may well be back next year.

HB 437, sponsored by Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark, was full of gobbledygook about “municipal competitive services,” but its effect would have been to condemn Missourians to ever-higher prices for broadband Internet service. Cities would have been forbidden from establishing their own broadband services to compete with private operators, thus holding down prices.

ALEC, which wines and dines state lawmakers and then gets them to pass pro-business “model legislation” in their states, had succeeded in getting restrictions on public Internet providers in 20 states. But in February, the Federal Communications Commission struck down North Carolina’s ALEC-inspired law, so the future of other such laws is uncertain.

About 22 percent of Missourians are still regarded as “underserved,” having no reliable access to broadband service of at least 25 megabits per second — what’s needed to stream video without lags. About 1 in 6 Missourians have only one wired access provider to choose from. More than 400,000 Missourians have no wired broadband at all.

Missouri is ranked 38th “most connected” in the nation by the federal-state Broadband Now initiative. In the 21st century, this is like being underserved by railroads in the 19th century or power lines in the early 20th. In parts of rural Missouri, it’s hard to do business, which helps explain why HB 437 died in committee.

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

Rep. Rocky Miller (R-Lake Ozark)

The basic question is whether companies that invest in high-speed Internet infrastructure should be able to charge whatever they can get away with, or whether broadband service should be treated as a public utility. If it’s the latter, as the FCC determined in February, then government must make sure it’s affordable.

Which brings us to Charter Communications proposed $56 billion takeover of Time Warner Cable and its $10.4 billion acquisition of Bright House Networks. Both deals were announced May 26; both will need approval from the FCC and the Justice Department’s antitrust regulators.

In St. Louis, we have a love-hate relationship with Charter, a homegrown company built atop what was once Cencom Cable. It has dominated the cable TV market here almost as long as there’s been a cable market.

Charter customers endured years of poor service, its bankruptcy, its legal challenges, its ownership and management changes. Just when it got itself together, in 2012, the headquarters was moved from Des Peres to Stamford, Conn., though it retains a significant presence here.

Today our little Charter is a big fish; the Time Warner and Bright House deals would make it the nation’s second-largest cable company, with 24 million customers, behind only Philadelphia-based Comcast, with 27 million.

But cable TV no longer drives cable TV. Internet-based video services, like YouTube and Netflix, have revolutionized the way people, particularly younger people, watch TV. When cable companies first started connecting customers to the Internet through the same cables that delivered TV programming, it was regarded as a nice add-on business. Now broadband delivery is seen as a far bigger part of the future than providing TV programs.

missouriIndeed, when Comcast tried to acquire Time Warner last year, the dominance (nearly 60 percent of the market) that the combined company would have had over broadband service caused federal regulators to look askance. Comcast abandoned its bid in April.

By contrast, a Charter-Time Warner-Bright House combination (it will do business as Spectrum) will control 30 percent of the broadband market. Charter Spectrum will have 20 million broadband subscribers, compared with 22 million for Comcast.

So what can customers expect? Charter’s CEO Tom Rutledge has promised “faster Internet speeds, state-of-the-art video experiences and fully featured voice products, at highly competitive prices.”

This begs the question, competitive with whom? Comcast? Mom-and-pop operations that can’t afford the infrastructure? Municipal service providers who are being ALEC’d out of business?

Neither Charter nor Time Warner has particularly good customer service ratings (though to be fair, Charter is miles ahead of where it used to be, at least in St. Louis). Still, Charter will take on lots of debt to finance the deal, much of it in high-yield junk bonds. The broadband business provides leverage. As analyst Craig Moffett of MoffettNathanson told the Wall Street Journal: “Broadband pricing is almost an insurance policy for cable operators, in that if all else fails, you’ve always got the option to raise broadband rates.”

America wouldn’t let a private operator own 30 percent of its roads and highways. It wouldn’t allow two of them to control half the electricity. If broadband Internet service is a public utility, it must be regulated strictly.

The lesson is old as the hills: The free-marketeers who talk most passionately about competition are generally in the business of trying to eliminate it. Charter and Time Warner are both members of ALEC.

The Charter-Time Warner deal clearly is not in the public interest. The upside for shareholders is huge. The upside for Charter executives is even bigger. But it’s hard to see how Charter’s customers would see much benefit at all.

No More Subsidies on iPhones at Verizon or AT&T: Buy Your Own Phone on a Payment Plan

next edgeAT&T and Verizon Wireless are ditching subsidies for the popular (and expensive) Apple iPhone in favor of straight installment payment plans.

9to5Mac reports Apple has sent a memo to employees outlining major changes in how iPhones will be sold to AT&T and Verizon Wireless customers.

Apple iPhones sold via AT&T and both Apple’s retail and online stores will shift exclusively to AT&T’s Next financing plans this month and end device subsidies. AT&T Next allows customers to buy a device at retail price and pay it off in 20, 24, or 30 installments on their AT&T bill. The primary benefit of the Next plan is it permits customers upgrade to a newer device after 12, 18, or 24 installment payments. For now, customers transitioning away from their existing plan to Next will be able to keep their unlimited AT&T data plan.

iphone6Verizon Wireless is also planning to drop its two-year subsidy programs, perhaps entirely across all devices, as early as the end of this summer. That will force Verizon Wireless customers onto the Edge installment payment program unless they are willing to pay for a device upfront.

But Verizon will tighten the screws even more on iPhone users by blocking the Edge Up feature for Apple phones. Instead of being eligible for an early upgrade after 18 months, Verizon will commit its iPhone customers to a full two-year waiting period or until the phone is completely paid off. Magnanimously, Verizon will let the customer keep the phone after they pay it off completely. It is unclear if Verizon will allow their legacy unlimited data customers to participate in the Edge program without forfeiting their unlimited data plan.

For many customers, this will represent a distinction without much difference. Phone subsidies have always been effectively paid back to the wireless carrier through artificially high service plan rates charged over the length of a two-year contract. The installment payment plan brings the cost of the phone subsidy out into the light where a customer will see (and pay) a separate installment payment for their device instead of having the subsidy’s recovery buried in the price of service. But Verizon has clearly sought constraints on its iPhone customers who aggressively pursue upgrades at the appearance of any new iPhone model. Going forward, they will have to pay off any remaining installments owed on their old phone before upgrading to a new one.

AT&T’s Acquisition of DirecTV Will Likely Be Approved With a Number of Conditions

att directvWhile consumer groups were busy fighting the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, AT&T’s $49 billion purchase of DirecTV has largely flown under the radar, with no comparable organized consumer opposition to the deal. But that does not mean the FCC will approve it as-is.

Negotiations with federal regulators and an exchange of regulatory filings and comments between AT&T, the FCC, and deal critics have apparently forced AT&T to agree to several concessions to make regulators amenable to approving the transaction.

The Washington Post reports that chief among those concessions is AT&T’s willingness to voluntarily abide by certain Net Neutrality rules regardless of any court challenges, including banning the slowing or blocking of websites and agreeing not to accept payments from website operators to speed up their content. AT&T has not said how long it intends to keep that commitment.

Deal opponents are also seeking other concessions from AT&T:

No paid interconnection deals: AT&T must route incoming content to customers without any fees charged to the companies originating the traffic. This became a hot button issue when Netflix felt it was forced to pay Comcast a fee to assure its streamed video content would reach Comcast customers without buffering or other errors. AT&T is expected to fiercely oppose this condition and says it should have the right to make private deals with content delivery firms.

AT&T must offer standalone broadband: With AT&T’s acquisition of DirecTV, more than ever it will have an incentive to sell customers a television bundle with Internet service. Regulators want AT&T to assure broadband-only service remains readily available. AT&T has offered 6Mbps DSL for $34.95 a month as its standalone option. Content delivery firms like Cogent want AT&T to offer 25Mbps service in all of AT&T’s markets for $29.95 a month for at least seven years. The FCC recently defined 25Mbps the minimum speed to qualify as broadband.

No end runs around Net Neutrality with data caps and exemptions: AT&T wants the right to exempt its preferred partners from its usage caps and claims that is beneficial to consumers. But cap opponents claim that is simply another way to collect money from content companies for preferential treatment — an end run around Net Neutrality rules. Opponents of these cap exemptions, known as “zero-rating” claim all content should be treated the same. AT&T could resolve this by removing data caps from its DSL and U-verse services altogether.

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