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Stop the Cap! Reviews AT&T DirecTV Now: The Cord Cutting Revolution Continues

directvnow-planWhen AT&T announced it would offer 100+ cable television and broadcast network channels under the DirecTV Now brand for $35 a month, Wall Street had a fit.

Craig Moffett, an analyst with Moffett-Nathanson, speculated that AT&T would make at most a profit margin of $5 a month for its $35 a month plan, once programming costs were covered. But then AT&T announced it would sweeten the deal with a free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire Stick for those confident enough to prepay for the new service. That makes DirecTV Now a purposefully unprofitable service, creating considerable stress for both the cable and satellite industry and their investors.

Variety notes the average DirecTV satellite subscriber delivers about $60 a month in profit to its owner, AT&T. That led the industry magazine to speculate DirecTV Now is a “loss leader” designed to sell its parent company’s AT&T-Time Warner, Inc. merger deal to regulators on the premise of increased competition delivering real savings to consumers.

Thankfully for Wall Street’s nerves, AT&T’s usual practice of marketing things with a lot of fine print emerged in the nick of time, and the $35 dollar price has now turned out to be an introductory offer for early adopters. In the not-too-distant future, AT&T will enroll new customers for its “Go Big” package at a much more profitable $60 a month. Customers who sign up at the $35 rate and stay customers will be able to keep that price as long as they make no changes to their account after the promotion ends.

Moffett

Moffett

But Moffett warned investors that the traditional cable television model is still under serious threat, and AT&T’s less-promoted “Live a Little” package offering 60 popular cable networks for the everyday price of $35 is the equivalent of AT&T “running with scissors” because it alone could cause millions of cable and satellite customers to cut the cord and stay more than satisfied with a slimmed down cable package.

“Virtually all the channels that anyone would really want, save for regional sports networks” are included in the lighter “Live a Little” package, Moffett added. Customers who loathe watching sports but want a beefier package can also sign up for a $50, 80-channel “Just Right” package that primarily omits sports-oriented channels and a handful of spinoff cable networks few would miss.

Moffett and other Wall Street analysts were hoping AT&T would bloat its cheaper package with home shopping, religion, and other little-watched, low-cost cable networks and then entice customers to upgrade to unlock more popular cable channels. Instead, AT&T’s most premium package — “Gotta Have It” which costs $70 a month adds the “can live without” networks like Boomerang, Cloo, El Rey, Centric, and other little-known channels that typically live unnoticed in Channel Siberia on 500+ channel cable lineups. The highest premium priced package is attractive only for those looking for Starz/Encore channels and the basic cable network that gets no respect — Hallmark Movies & Mysteries (a/k/a the Dick van Dyke Permanent Employment Network.)

prepay-directvnow“By stacking their base package with all the best networks — likely a requirement for getting the programming contracts at all — they still have the same problem that was highlighted initially,” by Moffett. “Put simply, they aren’t going to make any money.”

That quest for profit is further challenged with subscriber acquisition programs that dole out free Apple TV units to customers willing to prepay for three months of service at the $35 rate or an Amazon Fire Stick (with Echo remote) in return for prepaying for one month of service. Anyone in the market for either device can sign up for DirecTV Now, get the equipment at an attractive price, and consider the 1-3 months of service a free extra bonus. Customers were reportedly lining up at AT&T’s owned and operated retail outlets (not authorized resellers) to pick up devices and sign up for service today.

At these prices and with these promotions, AT&T DirecTV Now could first decimate the subscriber base of its immediate competitors Sling TV and PlayStation Vue, either of which offer a much less compelling value. AT&T can afford to charge a lower price because it has deeper pockets and enormous volume discounts on the wholesale price of cable programming — combining millions of DirecTV and U-verse TV subscribers together to negotiate what industry insiders suspect are major discounts the smaller providers cannot get.

But there are issues likely to be deal-breakers for some would-be DirecTV Now subscribers:

  • Local broadcast stations are available only in a handful of selected cities and only a very few include all ABC, NBC, and FOX affiliates. CBS is not participating in DirecTV Now at this time, and that is a major omission;
  • NFL Network isn’t on the lineup;
  • Regional sports networks are spotty and geographically restricted. Here is a detailed PDF outlining options by zip code;
  • There is a limit of two concurrent streams and although video quality is very good, it is not the 1080/HD experience AT&T’s marketing material would suggest. The quality of your internet connection will make a difference;
  • No DVR option at this time.

CNET compiled an excellent channel comparison chart to help consumers figure out which, if any, of these upstarts make sense as a cable TV replacement:

DirecTV Now vs. Sling TV vs. PlayStation Vue (top 169 channels, see notes below)

Channel DirecTV Now Packages Sling Package Vue Package
A&E Live a Little Orange, Blue No
ABC Yes or VOD Broadcast extra Yes or VOD
AMC Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
American Heroes Go Big No Elite
Animal Planet Live a Little No Access
Audience Live a Little No No
AXS TV Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Baby TV No Kids extra No
BBC America Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
BBC World News Go Big News extra Elite
beIN Sports No Sports extra Core
BET Live a Little Blue (Orange lifestyle extra) No
Bloomberg TV Live a Little Base No
Boomerang Gotta Have It Kids extra Elite
Bravo Live a Little Blue Access
BTN Just Right No Core
Campus Insiders No Sports extra No
Cartoon Network/Adult Swim Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
CBS No No Yes or VOD
CBS Sports No No No
Centric Go Big No No
Cheddar No Orange, Blue No
Chiller Gotta Have It No Elite
Cinemax PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM No
Cloo Gotta Have It No Elite
CMT Live a Little Comedy extra No
CNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
CNBC World Just Right No Elite
CNN Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Comedy Central Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Comedy.TV Just Right No No
Cooking Channel Just Right Lifestyle extra Elite
CSPAN Live a Little No No
Destination America Go Big No Access
Discovery Channel Live a Little No Access
Discovery Family Go Big No Access
Discovery Life Go Big No Elite
Disney Channel Live a Little Orange Access
Disney Junior Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
Disney XD Live a Little Kids extra Orange Access
DIY Go Big Lifestyle extra Access
Duck TV No Kids extra No
E! Live a Little Lifestyle extra Blue Access
El Rey Network Gotta Have It Orange, Blue No
Encore Gotta Have It No No
EPIX No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Drive-in No Hollywood extra No
EPIX Hits No Hollywood extra PREMIUM, Elite
EPIX2 No Hollywood extra No
ESPN Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN 2 Live a Little Orange Access
ESPN Bases Loaded No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Buzzer Beater No Sports extra Orange No
ESPN Deportes No Spanish TV extra Orange Elite
ESPN Goal Line No Sports extra Orange No
ESPNEWS Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
ESPNU Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Esquire No No Access
Euro News No World News Extra No
Flama No Orange, Blue No
Food Network Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Fox Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
Fox Business Live a Little No Access
Fox College Sports Atlantic No No Elite
Fox College Sports Central No No Elite
Fox College Sports Pacific No No Elite
Fox News Live a Little No Access
Fox Sports 1 Live a Little Blue Access
Fox Sports 2 Go Big Blue Access
Fox Sports Prime Ticket Just Right No No
France 24 No World News Extra No
Freeform Live a Little Orange Access
Fuse Just Right No No
Fusion Just Right World News Extra Elite
FX Live a Little Blue Access
FXM Go Big No Elite
FXX Live a Little Blue Access
FYI Go Big Lifestyle extra No
Galavision Live a Little Orange, Blue No
Golf Channel Go Big Sports extra Blue Core
GSN Just Right Comedy extra No
Hallmark Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
Hallmark Movies & Mysteries No LIfestyle extra No
HBO PREMIUM ($5/month) PREMIUM PREMIUM, Ultra
HDNet Movies No Hollywood extra No
HGTV Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Hi-Yah No No Elite
History Live a Little Orange, Blue No
HLN Live a Little News extra Access
HSN No No No
IFC Just Right Orange, Blue Core
Ion No No No
Impact No No Elite
Investigation Discovery Live a Little No Access
JusticeCentral.TV Just Right No No
Lifetime Live a Little Orange, Blue No
LMN Just Right Lifestyle extra No
Local Now No Orange, Blue No
LOGO Go Big Comedy extra No
Longhorn Network Just Right No No
Machinima No No Elite
Maker No Orange, Blue No
MGM-HD No No Elite
MLB Network Just Right No No
Motors TV No Sports extra No
MSNBC Live a Little News extra Blue Access
MTV Live a Little Comedy extra No
MTV Classic Go Big No No
MTV2 Live a Little Comedy extra No
Nat Geo Wild Go Big Blue Elite
National Geographic Live a Little Blue Access
NBA TV Go Big Sports extra Core
NBC Yes or VOD Blue Yes or VOD
NBC Sports Network Just Right Blue Access
NDTV 24/7 No World News Extra No
News 18 India No World News Extra No
Newsy No Orange, Blue No
NFL Network No Blue Core
NFL Red Zone No Sports extra (Blue) PREMIUM (Core and up)
NHL Network Go Big Sports extra No
Nick Jr. Live a Little Blue No
Nickelodeon Live a Little No No
Nicktoons Live a Little Kids Extra Blue No
ONE World Sports No No Elite
Outdoor Channel No No No
Outside Television No Sports extra Elite
OWN Just Right No Access
Oxygen Just Right Lifestyle extra Blue Access
Palladia No No Elite
PBS No No No
Poker Central No No Elite
Polaris No Orange, Blue Elite
POP No No Access
QVC No No No
Revolt Go Big No No
RFD TV Live a Little No No
Russia Today No World News Extra No
Science Just Right No Access
SEC Network Just Right Sports extra Orange Core
Showtime No No PREMIUM, Elite
Spike Live a Little Comedy extra No
Sprout Go Big No Elite
Starz Gotta Have It PREMIUM No
Sundance TV Go Big Hollywood extra Core
Syfy Live a Little Blue Access
TBS Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
TCM Live a Little Hollywood extra Core
Teen Knick Live a Little Kids extra Blue Elite
Telemundo Live a Little No No
Tennis Channel Go Big No No
The Weather Channel Live a Little No No
TLC Live a Little No Access
TNT Live a Little Orange, Blue Access
Travel Channel Just Right Orange, Blue Access
truTV Live a Little Blue (Orange comedy extra) Access
TV Land Live a Little Comedy extra No
TVG Go Big No No
Universal HD No No Elite
Univision Live a Little Blue (Orange Broadcast extra) No
Univision Deportes Gotta Have It Sports extra No
Univision Mas Just Right Blue (Orange Broadcast Extra) No
USA Network Live a Little Blue Access
Velocity HD Live a Little No Elite
VH1 Live a Little Lifestyle extra No
VH1 Classic No No Elite
Vibrant TV No Lifestyle extra No
Viceland Live a Little Orange, Blue No
WE tv Live a Little Lifestyle extra Access
WeatherNation Live a Little No No
Notes

Broadcast networks including ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are not available for live streaming in many cities, except where noted as “yes.” The term “VOD” means viewers can watch these shows on-demand 24 hours after airing.
Most RSNs (Regional Sports Networks) not listed; varies per locality

PREMIUM = Available for an additional monthly fee beyond base package

DirecTV Now package key:
Live a Little = $35/month (Local ABC, Fox, NBC broadcasts included in select markets)
Just Right = $50/month
Go Big = $60/month ($35 / month introductory price)
Gotta Have It = $70/month

Sling TV package key:
Orange = $20/month
Blue = $25/month
other “”extras”” = another $5 /month each (Sports extra with Blue is $10)
Broacast Extra: ABC, Univision and Univision Mas available to Sling Orange subscribers in select cities

PlayStation Vue package key:
(for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco, Miami ONLY)
Access (Base) = $40/month
Core = $45/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite = $55/month (includes Access and Core channels)
Ultra = $75/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

(for all other cities, where ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC are available via VOD only)
Access Slim (Base) = $30/month
Core Slim = $35/month (includes Access channels, some Regional Sports Networks)
Elite Slim = $45/month (includes Core and Access channels)
Ultra Slim = $65/month (includes Access, Core and Elite channels, plus HBO and Showtime)

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

$5 a month each for HBO and Cinemax.

Time Warner, Inc. did its part, offering a substantial deal to DirecTV Now to allow customers to add HBO and Cinemax for just $5 a month each, substantially less than what both networks charge customers signing up a-la-carte. This also unlocks access to streaming options on both networks’ websites.

In fact, as a DirecTV Now customer, you will also become an authenticated pay television subscriber, unlocking access on various cable network websites to extra streaming and on-demand options.

The implications of DirecTV Now depend on how long AT&T extends its $35 offer, which is going to be compelling for a lot of Americans. Moffett predicts DirecTV Now could sign up a staggering 11 million Americans — at least two million cannibalized from its own DirecTV satellite customer base, six million cutting the cord on their cable company (including AT&T U-verse) and another three million cord-cutters or “cable-nevers.” Most of the latter are Millennials, and research suggests $35 may be low enough of a price point to sign them up.

AT&T is also raising concerns among internet activists because online streaming of DirecTV Now will not count against an AT&T postpaid customer’s data allowance. This zero rating scheme is seen as an end run around Net Neutrality, particularly because AT&T is not as generous with its competitors. AT&T said it will offer other video streamers the possibility of being exempted from AT&T data allowances, if they pay AT&T for the privilege.

How It Works/Signing Up

AT&T DirecTV Now starts with the Google Chrome 50+, Safari 8+ or Internet Explorer 11+ (on Windows 8 and up) web browsers or the DirecTV Now app. AT&T recommends Chrome for desktop viewing. The service doesn’t work with Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or legacy browsers.

The first step is registering for a 7-day free trial. Before handing over your credit card number, if you scroll down you will find a small free preview option is also available that includes a largely useless streaming barker channel promoting the service and a respectable collection of video on demand options from basic cable networks. The free video streaming option will give you a clue about how the service is likely to perform on your internet connection and devices. For the record, DirecTV Now now supports:

Support for other devices like Roku is coming next year.

Customers must be within the United States to use the service. If you travel abroad or to any U.S. territories like Guam, the Virgin Islands, or Puerto Rico, DirecTV Now will stop working until you return. When you sign up, keep in mind your billing zip code will mean a lot when it comes to accessing regional sports and local broadcast channels. DirecTV Now uses your billing zip code and your actual location to determine whether you are qualified to access regional sports networks and local stations.

Score a Free Apple TV Player or Amazon Fire TV Stick

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

Apple TV (4th Generation): Effectively free after prepaying for three months of service.

If you are looking to score an Apple TV (4th generation) or an Amazon Fire TV Stick, you will want to skip the 7-day free trial and enroll in a paid plan immediately, which will allow you to select which player you want. If you want the Apple TV, you will prepay for three months at $35 a month ($105). The Amazon Fire TV Stick only requires you to prepay for the first month of service ($35). One device per email address, but you can sign up for multiple accounts (using individual email addresses) and get a device for each — especially useful for larger families that could run into DirecTV Now’s two-stream limit.

Consider your choices before enrolling. If you want to add premium channels or upgrade your plan, and you select the three-month prepay option to grab an Apple TV Player, adding premium channels like HBO and Cinemax or moving to a higher plan will result in three months of prepaid charges for those upgrades as well, billed automatically to your credit card on file — which amounts to a $30 charge if you select HBO and Cinemax. After your promotional prepaid term ends, your account will continue to be billed at the $35 (plus any add-ons) rate until you cancel. AT&T covers you for the forfeited first free week by extending your bill date out by seven days. Allow 2-3 weeks for the device(s) to be shipped to you.

You can also sign up at an AT&T owned and operated retail store, but be aware AT&T “authorized” reseller stores are not participating in this promotion. That may allow you to bring home a device today.

Don’t care about the device promotions? Take the 7-day free trial, but be aware that you are giving AT&T your credit card number and charges begin immediately after the free week ends unless you cancel. Here’s how:

  1. Sign in to your account.
  2. From your User Account overview page, select Manage My Plan.
  3. Select the Cancel Plan link.
  4. Choose one of the listed reasons.
  5. Select Cancel Now to confirm cancellation.

Your subscription will continue until the end of the billing cycle. No refunds or credits are provided for partial months. Your account will revert to Freeview demo status after you cancel a subscription.  You can add a subscription package back at any time.

Oddly, AT&T is not charging sales tax for New York, California, Maryland or Virginia residents. Customers in states like Tennessee where AT&T provides local phone service were most likely to face sales taxes. Those signing up early are in the best position to exploit what appears to be an oversight, or it represents the first time the New York Department of Taxation and Finance left money on the table.

directv-now-price

Streaming from Your AT&T Wireless Device Does Not Count Against Your Data Allowance

If you’re a DirecTV Now and AT&T Wireless customer, streaming most DirecTV Now movies and programs over the AT&T wireless network won’t count against your data usage allowance, according to AT&T. But believe it or not, AT&T’s fine print indicates advertisements and non-streaming app activity do count! There are some other important disclosures to be aware of:

  • You must be on the AT&T Wireless network within the U.S. (U.S. territories are not qualified for zero rating);
  • You must be a postpaid, not a prepaid AT&T wireless customer to qualify and must not have “data block” on your mobile line;
  • If you are grandfathered on an unlimited data plan, using DirecTV Now will not count against the 22GB data threshold which subjects you to speed throttling;
  • This offer may disappear at any time and/or is subject to change.

DirecTV Now Qualifies You as an Authenticated Pay Television Subscriber

Many cable networks require customers enter their cable, satellite, or telco TV login credentials to unlock video streaming and on-demand features. DirecTV Now is a qualified provider for these websites (more coming):

Other networks are not yet enabled for DirecTV Now. CNN, for example, has a prompt for DirecTV satellite customers to log in, but DirecTV Now has its own account registration system.

Local Channels Are Very Spotty

Local over the air channels are very limited on DirecTV Now and are geographically restricted. You can access these channels only if you are located in or very near to the cities listed below and your billing zip code is in the same area. If you travel outside of the immediate area, live streaming will stop working until you return.

ABC*  NBC**  FOX  and Telemundo  are covered by DirecTV Now in selected cities. CBS is not available on the service at all at this time.

  • wlsAtlanta, GA: WAGA-TV
  • Austin, TX: KTBC
  • Boston, MA: Telemundo East
  • Charlotte, NC: WJZY
  • Chicago, IL: WLS-TV, WMAQ, WFLD, Telemundo East
  • Dallas-Ft Worth, TX: KXAS, KDFW-TV, Telemundo East
  • Denver, CO: Telemundo East
  • fox2Detroit, MI: WJBK
  • Fresno-Visalia, CA: KFSN-TV, Telemundo East
  • Gainesville, FL: WOGX
  • Hartford-New Haven, CT: WVIT
  • Houston, TX: KTRK-TV, Telemundo East
  • 4nbcLas Vegas, NV: Telemundo East
  • Los Angeles, CA: KABC-TV, KNBC, KTTV, Telemundo East
  • Miami-Ft Lauderdale, FL: WTVJ, Telemundo East
  • Minneapolis, MN: KMSP-TV
  • New York, NY: WABC-TV, WNBC, WNYW, Telemundo East
  • Orlando-Daytona, FL: WOFL
  • Philadelphia, PA: WPVI-TV, WCAU, WTXF-TV, Telemundo East
  • Phoenix, AZ: KSAZ-TV, Telemundo East
  • Raleigh-Durham, NC: WTVD-TV
  • San Diego, CA: KNSD
  • San Francisco/Oakland/San Jose, CA: KGO-TV, KNTV, KTVU
  • Tampa-St Petersburg, FL: WTVT
  • Washington, D.C.: WRC, WTTG

*Not available on Internet Explorer 11 on Windows 7. **NBC live stream available on mobile and desktop devices only.

Giving the Service a Test

Stop the Cap! enrolled as an ordinary customer this morning and gave the service a rigorous test, including multiple streams over our 50/5Mbps internet connection. The service debuted today, and there is little doubt there is intense interest from consumers, so we expected some performance problems from the initial demand. We didn’t see any evidence of traffic congestion, however, and that is a good sign.

AT&T's John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

AT&T’s John Stankey explaining DirecTV Now.

A similar test of Sling TV did not perform as well during peak viewing times, when streaming problems emerged. DirecTV Now seems to be built to withstand intense demand.

One customer with a 6Mbps U-verse internet connection “in the boonies” was impressed the video quality of DirecTV Now was high even on a relatively slow DSL-like connection.

“This blows SlingTV away,” the person shared. “I only have U-verse 6Mbps internet service and it is not pixelated or buffering at all. Looks exactly like my regular DirecTV picture.”

AT&T published these recommendations for DirecTV Now customers regarding internet connection speeds:

  • 150kbps – 2.5Mbps – Minimum broadband connection speed for Mobile devices
  • 2.5 – 5.0Mbps – Recommended for HD quality

We’ve been led to believe DirecTV Now should perform equivalently to 1080i HDTV service (depending on the video source of course). We cannot say we agree it does right now. We noticed significant artifacts on high-motion video and picture graininess that left us feeling this was closer to a 720p HD experience. It isn’t possible to say whether the video player reduced playback quality because of internet traffic issues we were unaware of or if this is how the picture is supposed to look. It did not significantly detract from the viewing experience and the lack of buffering and pixelation was far more important to us.

AT&T store in NYC.

AT&T store in NYC.

DirecTV Now would serve adequately as a cable TV replacement if it had local station coverage and some type of DVR. At present, DirecTV Now is limited to a “Restart” feature that allows you to restart shows already in progress on certain channels, but you cannot fast-forward or record a restarted show. Once AT&T introduces a cloud-based DVR and fills out the local station lineup, this service could be lethal to overpriced cable TV packages.

AT&T’s marketing attempts to undercut the powerful position of inertia by setting an unknown time limit for customers to enroll in the $35 a month video package. If you don’t sign up today, you may not get the “free” Apple TV or Amazon Fire Stick and a respectable cable TV package for just $35 a month — about half what cable operators are charging these days for their bloated video packages. AT&T doesn’t care if you stick with your current cable provider and signup for DirecTV Now, if only to grab free streaming video equipment while sampling the service. They get their money either way.

Had AT&T permanently kept the price at around $35, many consumers would likely sit back and wait for AT&T to sort out the streaming contract issues it has with the TV networks — CBS in particular, and come up with a DVR solution before those potential customers decided to sign up and make the change. Based on several “hot deals” websites, the mentality among many consumers is to “lock in” the $35 price now and wait for AT&T to build out the package while continuing to invest $35 a month on it. That doesn’t seem so bad when you get free electronics as part of the deal.

Our Final Take

AT&T’s DirecTV Now is a potential winner and worth signing up for because of the introductory price and free equipment offers. But if you decide not to disconnect your cable/satellite television service, it is probably safe to drop DirecTV Now after your prepayment expires and return to resume service a little later. There will probably be some warning when AT&T will end the introductory price for the service, and interested customers can hop back on board before that date arrives. DirecTV Now will be a formidable competitor, but it will fight against consumer resistance to confront the cable company and cut cable’s cord until it solves the local channels issue and has a credible DVR option. The service could also use an add-on to make adding additional concurrent streams possible and more affordable than just signing up for a second account.

Don’t count out Big Cable just yet. With data caps and other internet overcharging schemes, Comcast, Cox, Suddenlink, and others can play games with usage allowances to deter customers from streaming all of their video entertainment online at the risk of blowing past their allowance. DirecTV Now’s $35 price won’t mean much after overlimit fees begin appearing on your internet bill.

Alaska’s Telecom Companies Will Waste $365 Million in Taxpayer Funds Building Duplicate 4G Networks

A new fiber provider is expected to vastly expand Alaska's internet backbone, but there are not enough middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

Quintillion, a new underseas fiber provider, is expected to vastly expand Alaska’s internet backbone, but there are not enough terrestrial middle mile networks to allow all Alaskans to benefit.

A federal taxpayer-funded effort to improve broadband access in rural Alaska will instead improve the bottom lines of Alaska’s telecommunications companies who helped collectively “consult” on a plan that will pay $365 million in taxpayer subsidies to companies building profitable and often redundant 4G wireless networks.

The Alaska Plan, which took effect Nov. 7, is a decade-long effort to subsidize telecom companies up to $55 million annually to encourage them to expand broadband service to 134,000 Alaskan households that get either no or very little internet service today. The Alaska Telephone Association (ATA) — an industry trade association and lobbying group, claims if the plan is successful, only 758 Alaskans will still be waiting for broadband by the year 2026.

But critics of the plan claim taxpayers will give millions to help subsidize private telecom companies that have plans to spend much of the money on redundant, highly profitable 4G wireless data networks that will cost most Alaskans large sums of money to access.

One company — AT&T, which refused to participate in the plan, is still taken care of by the plan, receiving $15.8 million dollars from taxpayers for doing absolutely nothing to improve broadband service in Alaska. The plan directs the money to AT&T to provide phase-down, high-cost support, which drew a sharp rebuke from Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai, who questioned why taxpayers had to subsidize AT&T for anything.

“The order claims this a ‘reasonable’ accommodation but cannot explain why the nation’s second largest wireless carrier needs ‘additional transition time to reduce any disruptions,’” Pai wrote.

quintillionThe biggest weakness of the plan, according to its critics, is its lack of support for middle-mile networks — wired infrastructure that connects providers to a statewide broadband backbone that can manage traffic needs without having to turn to slow-speed satellite connectivity. One of Alaska’s biggest challenges is finding low-cost connectivity with Canada and the lower-48 states. Much of the state relies heavily on GCI’s still-expanding TERRA network, which provides fiber as well as microwave connectivity to 72 towns and villages in rural Alaska. Quintillion, a new player, is working on stretching fiber connectivity through the Northwest Passage. Its forthcoming 30 terabit capacity fiber network offers the possibility of dramatically lower broadband rates and no more data caps, assuming providers have the network capacity to connect their service areas and the nearest fiber access point.

Instead of subsidizing the development of middle mile networks for this purpose, the authors of The Alaska Plan have instead favored wireless connectivity, including the very lucrative 4G wireless networks cellular providers want to expand. By definition, the broadband plan accommodates the limitations of wireless by easing broadband speed requirements for providers. To earn a subsidy, providers need not offer the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband — 25Mbps.

gciInstead, the ATA managed to convince regulators that 10/1Mbps service was good enough — speed that can be achieved by the DSL service phone companies favor. This is well below Alaska’s Broadband Task Force goal of 100Mbps for every state resident by 2020. Another free pass built into the plan is allowing providers to collect subsidies even when they do not offer 10Mbps because of network limitations, including lack of suitable middle mile networks. In those cases, the only speed requirement is 1Mbps download speeds and 256kbps uploads, the same as satellite broadband providers.

Commissioner Pai complained those are broadband speeds reminiscent of the internet a decade ago and hardly represents a vision for a faster future.

In a rare moment of bipartisanship at a divided FCC, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn joined Commissioner Pai dissenting from Alaska’s plan.

“It is clear that Alaska’s ‘majestic geography’ makes deployment difficult, but without affordable middle-mile connectivity, high-cost program support spent on the last mile does little to improve communications service to Alaskans,” Clyburn wrote. “Commissioner Pai and I supported an approach that would have taken the $35 million a year in duplicative universal service money and use[d] it to support a middle-mile mechanism that would enable many Alaskans in the Bush to receive broadband for the very first time. The status quo is simply not good enough, and the cost of doing nothing is far too high.”

Pai

Pai

Both Clyburn and Pai also complained federal tax dollars will be used to build duplicative 4G wireless networks that will primarily benefit providers. From Commissioner Clyburn’s statement:

We do not subsidize competition. We do not provide duplicative high-cost support to carriers in the same area and we do not subsidize carriers where other unsubsidized carriers are providing service. That underlying principle should be applied here as well. With Alaska’s “sublime scale,” we should instead be directing support to areas that are unserved, not subsidizing competition in areas that already receive mobile service. And just what is the cost to the American consumer of continuing to support overlap in these areas? About $35 million a year!

The companies benefiting from federal tax subsidies include: ASTAC, Copper Valley Wireless, Cordova Wireless, GCI, OTZ Wireless, which covers Northwest Alaska, TelAlaska Cellular, covering Interior and Northwest Alaska, and Windy City Cellular, covering Adak.

Clyburn

Clyburn

Pai called many of the spending priorities a waste of money that will still leave 21,000 Alaskans without 4G LTE broadband and another 46,000 without 25Mbps fixed broadband:

All together these wasted payments total $365 million, or about one quarter of the total Alaska Plan pot. That’s $365 million that could be used to link off-road communities to urban Alaska as requested by the Alaska Federation of Natives, the Bering Straits Native Corporation, the Chugachmiut rural healthcare organization, and many others. That $365 million is more than eight times the $44 million grant from the Broadband Initiatives Program that launched the TERRA Southwest middle-mile network that connected 65 off-road communities in 2011.

With the federal government now pouring federal tax dollars into Alaskan broadband, the state government has been using that as an opportunity to slash state investments in internet access.

A bill from Rep. Neal Foster (D-Nome) to upgrade all rural school districts to 10Mbps broadband for $6.2 million died in committee without any hearings, according to the Alaska Commons. State Rep. Lynn Gattis (R-Wasilla) proposed killing a $5 million broadband grant to schools, and the House Education subcommittee also recommended eliminating the Online with Libraries (OWL) program. Both programs ultimately survived, but not before the state legislature significantly cut the budgets of both programs.

Guttenberg

Guttenberg

State Rep. David Guttenberg (D-Fairbanks) hopes the results from last week’s election in Alaska will allow him to position stronger broadband-related legislation in the state legislature.

Guttenberg wants to reinstate a long-cut Broadband Task Force and Working Group while also creating a public Broadband Development Corporation that would build and own middle mile broadband infrastructure and sell it to telecommunications companies that have refused to build those types of networks on their own.

A lot of members of the ATA are lining up in opposition, the newspaper notes, because they won’t directly own the infrastructure. Guttenberg’s view is that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of deep-pocketed telecom companies.

“If you want to build a strong state, if you want to build a strong community, we need to start putting those pieces together,” Guttenberg said of broadband infrastructure last year. “If you give a kid a laptop or a pad in a school district, it’s pointless if he can’t get online.”

Election 2016: Trump Victory Troublesome for Tech Issues

Phillip Dampier November 10, 2016 Editorial & Site News, Public Policy & Gov't 7 Comments

donaldtrumpThe stunning victory by Donald Trump in Tuesday’s election ended two years of campaigning, negativity, and divisiveness.

Wednesday probably marked the beginning of Election 2020, which will involve four years of campaigning, negativity, and divisiveness.

Before looking at the implications of the forthcoming Trump Administration, some personal words about the results from the perspective of a lifelong resident of western New York, on the periphery of the Rust Belt region that evidently made all the difference for Mr. Trump on Tuesday night.

Casting my vote here in western New York while suffering a severe cold that has now evolved into walking pneumonia, I reflected on the fact this nasty election probably gave it to me. Despite that, I have the good fortune of living in a diverse community. Our next door neighbor, and by far the closest to us personally, is an ardent Republican who supported Sen. McCain, Gov. Romney, and Mr. Trump. Across the street, a reliable panoply of Democratic candidate lawn signs sprout every other fall. I spend my Friday afternoons in a community south of Rochester where Hillary Clinton has been largely reviled since she was a senator of New York. She didn’t win in Ontario County this year either. But Sen. Chuck Schumer routinely wins his elections with little effort or opposition.

Politics in the western half of New York State (known as “somewhere around Canada” to those in New York City and Long Island) is far more comparable to the battleground state of Ohio than reliably Democratic Manhattan. Our urban centers in Buffalo, Rochester, and Syracuse are solidly Democratic, while the suburbs and rural areas are just as likely to elect Republicans to office. Among those disappointed Democrats pondering a surprising election of Donald Trump, many cannot understand how such a result is possible. But having been a lifelong resident in a region that has seen profound changes from the decimation of blue-collar, high-paying manufacturing jobs in states that still cling to tax rates that assume everyone still has one, the Trump rebellion predicted by Michael Moore was hardly outlandish. Across the Rust Belt, more than a few voters have given up believing politicians, and are still waiting for relief from the relentless pressure on the declining middle class. Some of the worst job declines came in this region during the first Bush Administration and then again under President Bill Clinton. Memories are still fresh.

The changes to local economies in this region are profound and extremely difficult to navigate for those who lack advanced degrees or special technical skills. A state like North Carolina understands these changes well. An economy quickly transformed away from tobacco and textiles towards high technology created enormous challenges for many families. Those problems still exist in many parts of the state where infrastructure and good jobs are still lacking more than two decades later.

In Rochester, the formerly solid and reliable employers like Eastman Kodak and Xerox are a fraction of the size they were in the 1980s. My father met my mother at Eastman Kodak, a company that also employed more than half my extended family. But not for long. I vividly recall watching the inauguration parade of President Bill Clinton on television in 1993 on a day that Eastman Kodak carried out another wave of draconian job cuts. My father’s job survived, but my uncle’s did not. My grandfather had retired by then.

Michael Moore correctly predicted the reality of a Trump victory with the support of a disaffected middle class in economically distressed states.

Michael Moore correctly predicted the reality of a Trump victory with the support of a disaffected middle class in economically distressed states.

Twenty-three years later, the largest employer by far in this area is the University of Rochester/UR Medicine, which includes the university and an enormous medical treatment infrastructure. Together, this accounts for 22,500 workers. The second largest employer in Rochester is a grocery store. A great grocery store — Wegmans, founded and based here, but a grocery store nonetheless. It accounts for 13,500 jobs. Another 13,000+ workers are employed in medical treatment and hospital services that compete with the U of R. Rounding out top employers are the Rochester City School District with 5,500 teachers, administrators and staff, which is almost as big as Monroe County’s government, which accounts for 4,500 employees. The biggest remaining manufacturer is Xerox, which employs 6,300 workers. But consider this contrast: in 1982 Kodak employed 60,400 in the Rochester area. Today, that number is just 2,300.

Rochester had it easy compared to heavy manufacturing cities to our west. Buffalo, western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan have been walloped twice — first by the offshoring of heavy industry and then a second round of manufacturing job losses many voters blame on various free trade agreements. Many tens of thousands of these displaced workers have relocated to other states. Exiting residents of Rochester overwhelmingly prefer North Carolina and Arizona for various reasons, while blue-collar workers further west often end up in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and other southern states. Many of those that remained behind and remember their old jobs are angry, very angry. Some of them supported Bernie Sanders, especially in Michigan. But once the choice came down to Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, more than a few voted for Mr. Trump, not out of a great allegiance to the Republican party, but because Trump vilified free trade and business as usual in D.C. To these voters, fair or not, Hillary seemed to embody the establishment that has done little or nothing except make speeches.

The election is now over and we have the results. My candidate did not win because she did not run. (Elizabeth Warren in 2020!) On the broadband issues Stop the Cap! is concerned with, a Trump Administration is likely to be bad news for consumer protection, fair pricing, and community broadband, primarily because the people Mr. Trump has chosen thus far to advise him on tech issues are the usual sort with close ties to the largest telecommunications companies in the country, and many have penned papers that have closely aligned with those companies’ public policy positions.

Phillip Dampier: This election gave me walking pneumonia.

Phillip Dampier: This election gave me walking pneumonia.

Trump transition team adviser Jeffrey Eisenach, for example — who we wrote about back in August, could hold considerable power over the direction President-elect Trump will take tech policy in this country. Eisenach has written papers opposing Net Neutrality, is unconcerned about data caps and zero rating policies, and called fears about consolidation blowouts like the now-dead Comcast-Time Warner Cable mega-merger overblown.

Trump did state opposition to the recent merger announcement from AT&T and Time Warner, Inc., which has Wall Street concerned the deal will be DOA by the time the merger papers are filed sometime early next year in Washington. If President Trump keeps his word on that, there are many more mergers and acquisition deals that will emerge in 2017 that will likely never be on his radar, but will be reviewed by a Federal Communications Commission stacked with commissioners closer in ideology to Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly than Thomas Wheeler. In our view, Commissioners Pai and O’Rielly have yet to support any significant pro-consumer policy change on broadband before the FCC. Instead, they have largely parroted Big Telecom’s talking points.

It is our suspicion that most of the merger and acquisition deals dreamed about on Wall Street that would never have gotten through the Obama Administration’s Justice Department and FCC will receive quick approval under a Trump Administration.

While Mr. Trump alludes he will prove to be a complete game-changer to business as usual in Washington, his transition team is being swarmed by the usual faces — corporate lobbyists, big donors, and political hacks angling for cabinet or agency positions. Most of them are Beltway insiders, and many have been through D.C.’s revolving door before — lobbyist -> public servant -> lobbyist.

So while Mr. Trump tells America AT&T and Time Warner is “too much concentration of power in the hands of too few,” we remain uncertain he will speak as loudly about other likely deals, particularly involving Altice, Cox, Mediacom, CenturyLink, Windstream, Frontier, Sprint, and T-Mobile — just some of the hunters and the hunted that may get consolidated in 2017.

On other issues:

  • Net Neutrality: Republicans vilified Net Neutrality and a Republican-dominated FCC will likely kill or dramatically downplay any efforts to enforce it. Trump himself has never been a fan. Any new powers won by Chairman Wheeler to regulate internet providers under Title II will also likely be jettisoned by a Chairman Pai or O’Rielly;
  • Data Caps/Zero Rating: This issue is important to us, but isn’t likely to see any regulatory action under a GOP-dominated FCC. Internet providers are likely to see a Trump Administration as a green light for data caps and consumption billing;
  • Internet Privacy: Efforts to regulate internet privacy will also likely face a reversal from skeptical Republicans who will combine excuses for national security with a “hands off” attitude on telecommunications regulation.
  • Community Broadband: The issue of turning back bans on public/municipal broadband will have to be won on the state level. We do not expect to see many friends for municipal broadband in Republican-dominated Washington. The influence of the Koch Brothers, notoriously opposed to public internet projects, has only gotten stronger after this election.

With a GOP-sweep across the Executive and Legislative branches, we expect more deregulation, which is likely to further entrench the broadband duopoly in the United States, if not further expand it with additional consolidation-related mergers and acquisitions, at least among the small and mid-sized players.

On a more personal level, I have been involved in public policy battles surrounding telecommunications issues since 1988. In the late 1980s, I fought for increased competition and regulatory relief for home satellite (TVRO) dishowners and we joined forces to help pass the 1992 Cable Act, which laid the foundation for the emergence of competitors DirecTV and Dish Networks — the first serious competition to the cable industry. That law was vetoed by President George H.W. Bush, but that veto was overridden by the U.S. Congress — the only bill to successfully become law during the first Bush Administration over his objection. Republicans pay cable bills too.

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

(Image courtesy: Steve Rhodes)

Administrations come and administrations go, but we are still here.

The need for robust consumer protection, true competition, and a level playing field never changes. Your involvement remains essential regardless of what party is in power in Washington. Some battles will be more challenging, but not all. Direct consumer action can make an impact on companies concerned about their brand and public image. Just as consumers are passionate about rising cable bills, broadband is always a hot button issue, especially where service is unavailable or comes only at a price that resembles extortion.

The president-elect says that America doesn’t win anymore. We sure haven’t been winning on broadband, either on speed, pricing, or availability, in comparison to Europe and Asia. The solution is not to turn the problem over to the same companies that created the conditions for broadband malaise we are dealing with now. As seen in fiercely competitive markets like France, true competition is often the only regulation you need. A duopoly answers to itself. Having the choice of four, five, six, or more competing providers answers to customers. Consolidated and entrenched markets resist innovation and the need to compete stagnates. Corporate welfare and ghost-written telecom laws that forbid community broadband restricts economic growth and kills jobs, stranding countless rural residents from the digital economy. That -is- business as usual in too many states where groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) facilitate legislative fixes and legal protectionism that restricts or disadvantages competition.

If Mr. Trump truly believes the words he has spoken, he must be vigilant. He must not surround himself with the same politicians and their minders that created the very problems he promises to fix. The voters that elected him to office expect nothing less than blowing up business as usual. But the nation’s capital has a better track record of changing the politician while resisting change to the status quo.

We wish President Trump success for our country, but we’ll be watching to make certain his rhetoric meets the reality.

Justice Department Suing AT&T for Antitrust Collusion Over Dodgers Sports Channel

spectrum-sportsnetWhile AT&T argues its blockbuster merger with Time Warner, Inc., will not represent an increased risk of media consolidation and antitrust abuse, that same phone company is now facing time in court to answer a lawsuit filed today by the Justice Department accusing AT&T of unlawful collusion with cable operators over the pricing of a Southern California regional sports channel.

DirecTV — now owned by AT&T — is accused of being the ringleader of an illegal “information-sharing” scheme that traded confidential information between the satellite provider, AT&T, Cox Communications, and Charter Communications regarding carriage contract negotiations between SportsNet LA (now known as Spectrum SportsNet) and competing pay television companies.

SportsNet LA has been in the news since its launch. Owned by the Los Angeles Dodgers and initially distributed by Time Warner Cable, SportsNet LA was rejected by most of its pay TV rivals after they balked over the asking price.

att directvNow the Justice Department is accusing DirecTV of a secretly coordinating the sharing of confidential information between the area’s cable operators and AT&T that “corrupted” negotiations with Time Warner Cable over the price to carry the channel.

With all of Southern California’s major cable companies and AT&T allegedly colluding with DirecTV, the providers could create a united front to demand a better price and terms for the sports channel. In the end, it didn’t work and Charter, Time Warner Cable’s new owner, remains the largest operator in the region to carry the network. Critics suggest Charter changed its mind about carrying the channel only to remove it as a potential issue in its merger with the larger Time Warner Cable.

“Dodgers fans were denied a fair competitive process when DirecTV orchestrated a series of information exchanges with direct competitors that ultimately made consumers less likely to be able to watch their hometown team,” said Justice Department lawyer Jonathan Sallet.

justiceThe Justice Department brought the case exclusively against DirecTV’s parent company — AT&T.

Cox was relieved not to be sued.

“We are gratified that we were not named as a defendant. We continue to be committed to making independent decisions on program content,” a Cox spokesperson said in a statement. Charter has refused to comment.

For now, AT&T plans a robust defense in court.

“The reason why no other major TV provider chose to carry this content was that no one wanted to force all of their customers to pay the inflated prices that Time Warner Cable was demanding for a channel devoted solely to LA Dodgers baseball,” AT&T said in a statement. “We make our carriage decisions independently, legally and only after thorough negotiations with the content owner. We look forward to presenting these facts in court.”

But the case highlights critics’ concerns that allowing AT&T to grow even larger with the acquisition of Time Warner, Inc., only increases the chances of more alleged antitrust violations and collusion between players in the increasingly concentrated pay television market. Since SportsNet LA launched in 2014, Charter Communications has merged with Time Warner Cable — changing the name of the sports channel to Spectrum SportsNet, Verizon Communications has sold its FiOS network to Frontier Communications, which already provides service in parts of California, and AT&T has purchased DirecTV outright. Only Cox remains untouched by the recent wave of consolidation, although many analysts expect a takeover bid from Altice USA sometime in 2017.

AT&T-Time Warner Deal Could Hinge on Data Usage Caps/Zero Rating

AT&T’s rivals are likely to cry foul over the company’s practice of “zero rating,” in which it exempts its own video services from data-cap usage. The Wall Street Journal’s Shalini Ramachandran explains how this could impact the proposed AT&T-Time Warner merger. (2:44)

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