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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

Rough Day for Internet: Fiber Issues, Amazon/AWS Outage, Vandalism Disrupts Service

WaveLogoSmallWest coast Internet users, particularly those around San Francisco and Sacramento, experienced major disruptions to the Internet last evening into this morning, affecting everything from cable television and phone service to popular online destinations including Amazon.com (and websites hosted by its AWS data service), Tinder, and Netflix.

The range of disruptions led to early media speculation a “coordinated attack” on the Internet was underway on the west coast, but a statement from the Sacramento field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation this morning clarified it was investigating only a single case of alleged intentional vandalism in the San Francisco area today.

The FBI suspects someone climbed down a manhole in Livermore early this morning and intentionally cut a high traffic fiber line owned by Level 3 and Zayo. This is not the first case of suspected vandalism. At least 10 other fiber line cuts in Fremont, Berkeley, San Jose, Alamo, and Walnut Creek have occurred in the Bay Area over the last year.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/USA Today FBI investigating 11 attacks on San Francisco-area Internet lines 7-1-15.flv

USA Today reports the FBI is now investigating the 11th intentional fiber cut in the San Francisco Bay area in 12 months. (1:18)

The hardest hit ISP was Wave Broadband in West Sacramento, Calif. The fiber outage wiped out cable, phone and broadband service for customers across Sacramento, Rocklin, and surrounding communities including Dixon.

livermoreA broader issue yesterday evening also affected customers beyond northern California. Amazon.com and websites using its AWS platform suddenly stopped responding between 5:24pm-6:10pm PT last night. But that issue was later determined to be an unrelated “route leak” from Axcelx, a data center provider in Boston.

Thousand Eyes reports that problem “affected a wide range of services including consumer internet sites like Yelp, Netflix and Match; SaaS services such as HipChat and Jobvite; and financial firms such as Experian and Zions Bank.”

Any report of fiber vandalism concerns security experts, who suggest terrorists could target the highly visible data cables and create massive telecommunications disruptions in the United States.

“When it’s situations that are scattered all in one geography, that raises the possibility that they are testing out capabilities, response times and impact,” JJ Thompson, CEO of Rook Security, told USA Today. “That is a security person’s nightmare.”

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KCRA Sacramento Wave Broadband service restored after deliberate act 7-1-15.mp4

KCRA in Sacramento said the telecommunications outages in Sacramento were frustrating for businesses, residents, and local government — all affected by the fiber cut in San Francisco. (2:20)

Fiber cables are also often readily identifiable by their bright orange insulation as well as from warning signs alerting construction crews and others to their presence underground.

downdetect

DownDetector clearly identifies the impact of the fiber outage affecting Wave Broadband in the Sacramento area.

“There are flags and signs indicating to somebody who wants to do damage: This is where it is folks,” said Richard Doherty, research director of The Envisioneering Group, a technology assessment and market research firm. “You often have fiber from several companies sometimes going down the same street or the same trench. One attacker can dig one hole and wipe out service from three companies.”

The FBI is asking for the public’s help in identifying the vandal in the Bay Area. In addition to this morning’s attack, anyone who may have seen anything suspicious in these earlier attacks should contact them at 415-553-7400.

  • July 6, 2014, 9:44 p.m. near 7th and Grayson St. in Berkeley
  • July 6, 2014, 11:39 p.m. near Niles Canyon Blvd. and Mission Blvd. in Fremont
  • July 7, 2014, 12:24 a.m. near Jones Road and Iron Horse Trail in Walnut Creek
  • July 7, 2014, 12:51 a.m. near Niles Canyon Blvd. and Alameda Creek in Fremont
  • July 7, 2014, 2:13 a.m. near Stockton Ave. and University Ave. in San Jose
  • February 24, 2014, 11:30 p.m. near Niles Canyon Blvd. and Mission Blvd. in Fremont
  • February 24, 2014, 11:30 p.m. near Niles Canyon Blvd. and Alameda Creek in Fremont
  • June 8, 2015, 11:00 p.m. near Danville Blvd. and Rudgear Road in Alamo
  • June 8, 2015, 11:40 p.m. near Overacker Ave and Mowry Ave in Fremont
  • June 9, 2015, 1:38 p.m. near Jones Road and Parkside Dr. in Walnut Creek
http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/KXTV Sacramento FBI Sacramento area internet outage result of vandalism 7-1-15.flv

KXTV in Sacramento reports the fiber cuts have immediate security and public safety implications for public officials. But network planners say no fiber cut should have disrupted so many customers and suggest better planning could have spared many from the service outage. (2:23)

Cablevision Gives Free Optimum Online Speed Boost to 25Mbps

Phillip Dampier June 23, 2015 Broadband Speed, Cablevision, Consumer News No Comments

Optimum-Branding-Spot-New-LogoCablevision has treated its broadband subscribers to a free speed boost for those signed up for the basic Optimum Online Internet tier. The old speed of 15/5Mbps has today been raised to 25/5Mbps, meeting the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband service.

Cablevision continues to sell its base Internet service at a non-promotional price of $39.99/month, considerably lower than most other cable operators.

“We are taking the next step as New York’s premiere connectivity company to provide a better, faster data experience both inside and outside the home at no additional cost,” Kristin Dolan, chief operating officer of Cablevision, said in a statement. “This speed increase, along with Optimum WiFi, provides a superior broadband experience to meet and exceed the needs of our customers.”

For now, Cablevision’s other widely available broadband tiers: Optimum Online Ultra 50, Optimum Online Ultra 75 and Optimum Online Ultra 101 are unchanged.

Sling TV CEO Fears Providers Will Jack Up Broadband Prices to Kill Online Video

DishLogo-RedIn the last three years, several Wall Street analysts have called on cable and telephone companies to raise the price of broadband service to make up for declining profits selling cable TV. As shareholders pressure executives to keep profits high and costs low, dramatic price changes may be coming for broadband and television service that will boost profits and likely eliminate one of their biggest potential competitors — Sling TV.

For more than 20 years, the most expensive part of the cable package has been television service. Cable One CEO Thomas Might acknowledged that in 2005, despite growing revenue from broadband, cable television still provided most the profits. That year, 64% of Cable One’s profits came from video. Three years from now, only 30% will come from selling cable TV.

While broadband prices remained generally stable from the late 1990’s into the early 2000’s, cable companies were still raising cable television prices once, sometimes twice annually to support very healthy profit margins on a service found in most American homes no matter its cost. Despite customer complaints about rate hikes, as long as they stayed connected, few providers cared to listen. With little competition, pricing power was tightly held in the industry’s hands. The only significant challenge to that power came from programmers demanding (and consistently winning) a bigger share of cable’s profit pie.

The retransmission consent wars had begun. Local broadcast stations, popular cable networks, and even the major networks all had hands out for increased subscriber fees.

Rogers

Rogers

In the past, cable companies simply passed those costs along, blaming “increased programming costs” in rate hike notifications without mentioning the amount was also designed to keep their healthy margins intact. Only the arrival of The Great Recession changed that. New housing numbers headed downwards as children delayed leaving to rent their own apartment or buy a house. Many income-challenged families decided their budgets no longer allowed for the luxury of cable television and TV service was dropped. Even companies that managed to hang on to subscribers recognized there was now a limit on the amount customers would tolerate and the pace of cable TV rate hikes has slowed.

For a company like Cable One, the impact of de facto profit-sharing on cable television service was easy to see. Ten years ago, only about $30 of a $70 video subscription was handed over to programmers. This year, a record $45.85 of each $81 cable TV subscription is paid to programmers. The $35.50 or so remaining does not count as profit. Cable One reported only $10.61 was left after indirect costs per customer were managed, and after paying for system upgrades and other expenses, it got to keep just $0.96 a month in profit.

To combat the attack on the traditional video subscription model, Cable One raised prices in lesser amounts and began playing hardball with programmers. It permanently dropped Viacom-owned cable networks to show programmers it meant business. Subscribers were livid. More than 103,000 of Cable One’s customers across the country canceled TV service, leaving the cable company with just over 421,000 video customers nationwide.

Some on Wall Street believe conducting a war to preserve video profits need not be fought.

Prices already rising even before "re-pricing" broadband.

U.S. broadband providers already deliver some of the world’s most expensive Internet access.

Analysts told cable companies that the era of fat profits selling bloated TV packages is over, but the days of selling overpriced broadband service to customers that will not cancel regardless of the price are just beginning.

Cablevision CEO James Dolan admitted the real money was already in broadband, telling investors Cablevision’s broadband profit margins now exceed its video margins by at least seven to one.

The time to raise broadband prices even higher has apparently arrived.

new street research“Our work suggests that cable companies have room to take up broadband pricing significantly and we believe regulators should not oppose the re-pricing (it is good for competition & investment),” wrote New Street Research’s Jonathan Chaplin in a recent note to investors. The Wall Street firm sells its advice to telecom companies. “The companies will undoubtedly have to take pay-TV pricing down to help ‘fund’ the price increase for broadband, but this is a good thing for the business. Post re-pricing, [online video] competition would cease to be a threat and the companies would grow revenue and free cash flow at a far faster rate than they would otherwise.”

If you are already a triple play cable television, broadband, and phone customer, you may not notice much change if this comes to pass, at least not at first. To combat cord-cutting and other threats to video revenue, some advisers are calling on cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Charter to re-price the components of their package. Under one scenario, the cost of cable television would be cut up to $30 a month while the price of Internet access would increase by $30 or more a month above current prices. Only customers who subscribe to one service or the other, but not both, would see a major change. A cable TV-only subscriber would happily welcome a $50 monthly bill. A broadband-only customer charged $80, 90, or even 100 for basic broadband service would not.

broadband pricesNeither would Sling CEO Roger Lynch, who has a package of 23 cable channels to sell broadband-only customers for $20 a month.

“They have their dominant — in many cases monopolies — in their market for broadband, especially high-speed broadband,” Sling CEO Roger Lynch told Business Insider in an interview, adding that some cable companies already make it cheaper for people to subscribe to TV and broadband from a cable company than just subscribe to broadband.

A typical Sling customers would be confronted with paying up to $100 a month just for broadband service before paying Sling its $20 a month. Coincidentally, that customer’s broadband provider is likely already selling cable TV and will target promotions at Sling’s customers offering ten times the number of channels for as little as a few dollars more a month on top of what they currently pay for Internet access.

Such a pricing change would damage, if not destroy, Sling TV’s business model. Lynch is convinced providers are seriously contemplating it to use “their dominant position to try to thwart over the top services.”

At least 75% of the country would be held captive by any cable re-pricing tactic, because those Americans have just one choice in providers capable of meeting the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband.

Even more worrying, FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler may be responsible for leading the industry to the re-pricing road map by repeatedly reassuring providers the FCC will have nothing to do with price regulation, which opens the door to broadband pricing abuses that cannot be easily countered by market forces.

Lynch has called on the FCC to “protect consumers” and “make sure there’s innovation and competition in video.”

Unfortunately, Wheeler may have something else to prove to his critics who argued Net Neutrality and Title II oversight of broadband would lead to rampant price regulation. Wheeler has hinted repeatedly he is waiting to prove what he says — an allusion to hoping for a formal rate complaint to arrive at the FCC just so he can shoot it down.

Empire Access Expands Fiber to the Home Service Across Western N.Y./Southern Tier

empireA Prattsburgh, N.Y. family-owned company has picked up where Verizon left off and is busily wiring up small communities across western New York and the Southern Tier with fiber to the home service, giving both Verizon and Time Warner Cable some competitive headaches.

Empire Access is concentrating its service in areas where Verizon FiOS will never go and Time Warner Cable maxes out at 50/5Mbps. The company recently launched service in downtown Batavia in Genesee County and will be launching serving in Big Flats later this year.

Empire promises no data caps or usage-based billing and offers 100/20Mbps at introductory prices ranging from between $45-65/mo. Gigabit broadband speed is also available.

Where it has franchise agreements with local communities, Empire also offers cable television packages ranging from $31.45-73.40, with up to 130 channels. The packages are not as comprehensive as those from Time Warner Cable, but customers may not mind losing a dozen or two niche cable channels to save up to $30 a month off what Time Warner charges. Nationwide home phone service is also an option.

Empire relies heavily on two public/non-profit fiber backbone networks to deliver service. The Southern Tier Network comprises a 235-mile long fiber backbone that runs through Steuben, Chemung and Schuyler counties. Further north, Axcess Ontario provides backbone connectivity across its 200+ mile fiber ring around Ontario County.

fiber backboneWith the help of public and non-profit broadband infrastructure, residents in small communities across a region extending from Sayre, Pa., north to Batavia, N.Y., will have another choice besides Verizon or Frontier DSL, Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Residents in some communities, like Hammondsport and Bath — south of Keuka Lake, love the fact they have a better choice than Time Warner Cable. Empire has reportedly signed up 70 percent of area businesses and has more than a 20% residential market share in both villages after a year doing business in the Finger Lakes communities.

Empire targets compact villages with a relatively affluent populations where no other fiber overbuilder is providing service. It doesn’t follow Google’s “fiberhood” approach where neighborhoods compete to be wired. Instead, it provides service across an entire village and then gradually expands to nearby towns from there.

Most western New York villages are already compact enough to attract the attention of cable companies, predominately Time Warner Cable, which has an effective broadband monopoly. Verizon and Frontier offer limited slowband DSL, but Verizon has stopped expanding the reach of its broadband service and will likely never bring FiOS fiber to the home service to any western N.Y. community outside of a handful of suburbs near Buffalo.

empire-access-truckThe arrival of Empire reminds some of the days when the first cable company arrived to wire their village. Word of mouth is often enough to attract new customers, but a handful of local sales agents are also on hand to handle customer signups. From there, one of the company’s 80+ employees in New York handle everything else.

Bryan Cummings, who shared the story of Empire Access with us, “is pretty stoked.”

“Bye, bye Time Warner Cable,” Cummings tells Stop the Cap!.

Time Warner has treated most of western New York about as well as its service areas in Ohio, often criticized for not keeping up with the times. With fiber overbuilders Empire Access in the Finger Lakes region and Southern Tier and Greenlight Networks in Rochester, the fastest Internet options are not coming from the local phone and cable company anymore.

WSKG in Binghamton explores fiber broadband developments in the Southern Tier of upstate New York. Empire Access is providing the fast fiber broadband Verizon, Frontier, and Time Warner Cable won’t. (3:54)

You must remain on this page to hear the clip, or you can download the clip and listen later.

At present, Empire Access provides service in:

  • Village of Arkport
  • City of Batavia
  • Village of Bath
  • Village of Canisteo
  • Village of Hammondsport
  • City of Hornell
  • Village of Montour Falls
  • Village of Naples
  • Village of North Hornell
  • Village of Watkins Glen
  • Village of Waverly (N.Y.)
  • Boroughs of Sayre, Athens, and South Waverly (Pa.)
  • Borough of Troy (Pa.)

Communities on Empire’s radar for future expansion include Urbana, Dansville, Wayland and Cohocton. Further out, there is some consideration of larger cities like Corning and Elmira, as well as other towns in far northern Pennsylvania. With Empire’s expansion into Naples, the company also has many options in affluent and growing communities in Ontario County, south of Rochester.

Comcast Tells Customers Gigabit Pro Service Will Likely Arrive “Sometime in July”

Phillip Dampier June 10, 2015 Broadband Speed, Comcast/Xfinity, Consumer News No Comments
calendar

Comcast initially announced its 2Gbps broadband service would be available in May.

Three Comcast customers have told Stop the Cap! the cable company has informed them their wait to sign up for 2Gbps service will be a bit longer than planned.

“First it was May, then June, and now I’m being told ‘sometime in July,’ at least for Comcast’s central division, and even then they were not sure,” reports our reader Bruce Nuñez in Atlanta. That same answer was also received by Tom Davis who contacted Comcast this morning about the service.

“They still won’t release any information about anticipated installation costs, although the representative was fairly certain there would be a charge, and they won’t tell anyone the monthly price either,” said Davis. “The representative did tell me it was safer to assume the service will premiere in July and not hold out for June.”

A third potential customer in Miami was also given a vague availability date of “sometime in July” after being told there was no longer a scheduled launch date in June because Comcast wanted to simultaneously launch the service in several cities at once, and there were unspecified delays.

Comcast had previously announced the service would launch sometime in May. While not ready to actually provide the service, Comcast has been busy promoting markets where Gigabit Pro will eventually be available:

(Image: DSL Reports)

(Image: DSL Reports)

  • California: Chico, Fresno, Marysville/Yuba City, Merced, Modesto, Monterey, Sacramento, Salinas, San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Barbara County, Stockton, Visalia
  • Colorado: Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins, Longmont, Loveland
  • Florida: Jacksonville, Miami
  • Georgia: Atlanta
  • Illinois: Chicago
  • Indiana: Northwest Indiana suburbs near Chicago
  • Minnesota: Minneapolis, St. Paul
  • Oregon: Portland
  • Tennessee: Chattanooga, Knoxville
  • Texas: Houston
  • Utah: Salt Lake City
  • Washington: Everett, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma

Customers will have to live within one-third of a mile of existing Comcast fiber infrastructure to qualify for the service.

Initially leaked price information seemed to indicate Comcast was planning to sell the service for $300 a month. At that price, Comcast will likely limit customer demand. Comcast’s Metro Internet service, offering 505Mbps, has been priced at around $400 a month. But to sign up, one must agree to pay a $250 installation and $250 activation fee. The service also is provided on contract, with a very steep $1,000 early termination fee.

Free Speed Upgrade: 600/600Mbps for $22.45/Mo from Lithuania’s Teo

Phillip Dampier June 9, 2015 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News No Comments

teoCustomers of Lithuania’s Teo are getting a free speed upgrade — from 500Mbps before to 600Mbps now — on the company’s fiber to the home network. They are also paying less than half the price of what you pay for 15Mbps.

“Internet bandwidth is constantly increasing and high-speed becomes a market norm,” said Teo’s Nerijus Ivanauskas. “Therefore, we see that the added value that customers receive from purchasing a basic service becomes an increasingly important factor when choosing a service provider.”

Lithuanians have several choices for broadband service and price competition has kept broadband speeds faster than what North Americans typically receive, at a fraction of the price. Fiber to the home service is increasingly common in populated areas and is very affordable. Budget-minded customers happy with 100/100Mbps Internet access can get it from Teo for less than $13.50 a month.

Teo’s fiber network passes 837,000 households as of the first quarter of this year. That represents almost 70% of Lithuania. Lithuania was already well ahead of the United States and Canada, with an average broadband speed of 45.11Mbps — 4th place in the European Union and 9th fastest country in the world. Teo also leads the world in fast Wi-Fi. More than 3,000 Teo hotspots serve up speeds averaging 15.4Mbps to every connected client.

As broadband speeds continue to soar in Lithuania, Internet Service Providers have been forced to offer extras to customers to compete. Teo offers 300GB of free cloud storage space, free anti-virus protection, and special parental controls to help protect children from adult content.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Teo Internet Speed Lithuania 6-2015.mp4

A Teo advertisement showing off its fiber broadband speeds, ubiquitous free Wi-Fi network, anti-virus and child protection features. (0:45)

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.

Broadband Excitement Continues in Western Mass.; Big Support for WiredWest

fiber wiredwest

WiredWest is a public co-op seeking to deliver fiber to the home broadband across western Massachusetts.

Despite the dreary drizzle, fog, and unseasonably cold weather that has plagued the northeast since last weekend, 191 residents of New Salem, Mass. crowded into a basement for the town’s annual meeting Monday night, largely with one issue in mind: better broadband.

A reporter from The Recorder noted Moderator Calvin Layton was surprised by the overwhelming vote for fiber broadband — 189 for and only one apparently against.

The town clerk for New Salem typically counts around 60 heads at such meetings, but this night was different because the community was voting to spend $1.5 million to bring broadband to a town completely ignored by Comcast and Verizon. That fact has hurt area property values and has challenged residents and business owners alike. The town is fed up with inaction by the state’s dominant phone and cable company, which has done nothing to expand access in western Massachusetts.

“Our goal is to make this broadband available to every house, not just the places that are easy to wire,” said MaryEllen Kennedy, the chair of the town’s Broadband Committee.

New Salem isn’t alone.

Monterey passed its own bond authorization with a vote of 130 to 19, becoming the 10th consecutive town to vote in favor of bringing 21st century broadband to the region. The community of Beckett followed a day later.

Phillip "There are no broadband magic ponies" Dampier

Phillip “There are no broadband magic ponies” Dampier

Residents in 16 of the 17 towns asked so far to authorize the borrowing necessary to cover their community’s share of the fiber to the home project have usually done so in overwhelming majorities. But it has not been all good news. The town of Montgomery in Hampden County voted down paying its share by just two votes. Supporters claim low voter turnout may have done the project in, at least for the time being. A call for a new vote is underway.

Perhaps the most contentious debate over WiredWest continues in the small community of Hawley, where one activist has organized opposition for the project based on its cost to the community of 347. Hawley is in the difficult position of being a small community spread out across a lot of hills and hollows.  The cost for Hawley to participate in the fiber to the home project would be around $1 million, a figure many residents decided was out of their price range. Participation in WiredWest was shot down in a recent vote and the repercussions continue to this day in the opinion pages of The Recorder as residents fire back and forth at each other, sometimes with strident personal comments.

While easy to vote down participation in WiredWest, finding an alternative for Hawley has proved difficult.

Kirby “Lark” Thwing, a member of both the town finance and communications committees, is trying to find the cheaper broadband solution advocated by Hussain Hamdan, who has led the charge against WiredWest’s fiber to the home service in Hawley.

Thwing has run headfirst into what Stop the Cap! feared he would find — the rosy budget-minded alternatives suggested as tantalizingly within reach simply are not and come at a higher price tag than one might think.

Installing a Wi-Fi tower to bring wireless Internet access to a resort park.

Installing a Wi-Fi tower to bring wireless Internet access to a resort park.

Thwing is looking at a hybrid fiber/wireless solution involving a fiber trunk line run down two well-populated roads that could support fiber service for about half the homes in Hawley and lead to at least two large wireless towers that would reach most of the rest of town. He’s also hoping Hawley would still qualify to receive its $520,000 share of broadband grant money from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute to help cover the alternative project’s costs.

If Hawley can use that money, Thwing predicts it will cover much of the construction cost of the fiber trunk line. After that, each homeowner would be expected to pay to bring fiber from the trunk line to their home, definitely not a do-it-yourself project that will cost at least several hundred dollars, not counting the cost of any inside wiring and a network interface device attached to each participating home. Residents should also expect to spend another $100 on indoor electronics including a receiver and optional router to connect broadband to their home computer and other devices.

But the expenses don’t stop there.

Thwing also has to consider the cost of the wireless towers and provisioning a wireless service to Hawley residents not immediately adjacent to the fiber trunk line. He will be asking residents if they are willing to pay an extra $25-50 a month ($300-600 a year) to pay down the debt service on the town’s two proposed wireless towers. It isn’t known if that fee would include the price of the Internet service or just the infrastructure itself.

As Thwing himself recognizes, if the total cost for the alternative approaches the $1 million the town already rejected spending on fiber to the home service for everyone, it leaves Hawley no better off.

As Stop the Cap! reported last month, we believe Hawley will soon discover the costs of the alternatives Mr. Hamdan has suggested are greater than he suspects and do not include the cost of service, billing and support. Fiber to the home remains the best solution for Hawley and the rest of a region broadband forgot. Other towns that want to believe a cheaper alternative is out there waiting to be discovered should realize if such a solution did exist, private companies would have already jumped in to offer the service. They haven’t.

At the same time, we cannot ignore there are small communities in western Massachusetts that will find it a real burden to pay the infrastructure costs of a fiber network when there are fewer residents across wide distances to share the costs.

That is why it is critical for the Federal Communications Commission to expand rural broadband funding opportunities to subsidize the cost of constructing rural broadband services in communities like Hawley.

At the very least, state officials should consider creative solutions that either spread the cost of network construction out over a longer term or further subsidizing difficult to reach areas.

There is strong evidence voters across western Massachusetts are not looking for a government handout and have more than stepped up to pay their fair share to guarantee their digital future, but some challenges can be insurmountable without the kind of help the FCC already gives to private phone companies that spend the money on delivering dismally slow DSL service. Western Massachusetts has demonstrated it can get a bigger bang for the buck with fiber to the home service — a far better use of Connect America Funds than spending millions to bring 3Mbps DSL to the rural masses.

After Seeing Broadband-a-Plenty in Longmont, Fort Collins, Colorado Wants Public Broadband Too

nextlightIt’s an acute case of broadband envy.

Residents of Fort Collins, Colo., that have an excuse to take an hour’s drive south on U.S. Route 87 to visit Longmont and experience the Internet over the community’s public broadband service can’t believe their eyes. It’s so fast… and cheap. Back home it is a choice between Comcast and CenturyLink, and neither will win any popularity contests. While large parts of Colorado have gotten some upgrades out of Comcast, Fort Collins is one of the communities that typically gets the cable company’s attention last.

The city of Longmont took control of its digital destiny after years of anemic and expensive service from Comcast and CenturyLink. Longmont Power & Communications’ NextLight Internet service delivers gigabit fiber to the home service to the community of 90,000. The service was funded with a $40.3 million bond the city issued in 2014, to be paid back by NextLight customers, not taxpayers, over time. It remains a work in progress, but is expected to start construction to reach the last parts of Longmont by next spring.

chart memberNextLight delivers a mortal blow to competitors by charging a fair price for fast service. Instead of spending to upgrade their networks to compete, the incumbents demagogued the public project and Comcast spent $300,000 of its subscribers’ money in a campaign to kill the service before it even got started. Perhaps they had a right to be worried considering NextLight customers pay $49.95 a month for unlimited 1,000/1,000Mbps service. NextLight offers 20 times the download speed and 100 times the upload speed of Comcast’s Blast! package for nearly $30 less a month.

 

After NextLight was rated America’s fastest performing Internet service by Ookla in May, residents in Fort Collins began to wonder why they were still putting up with poor service from Comcast and lousy DSL from CenturyLink.

Fort Collins is about a one hour and fifteen minute drive north of Denver.

Fort Collins is about a one hour, fifteen minute drive north of Denver.

At the same time, city officials were doing their best to leverage some modest improvements from Comcast in return for a renewed franchise agreement. All they got was a vague commitment permitting the city to monitor Comcast’s notorious customer service and two HD channels set aside for Public, Educational, and Government use, along with a $20,000 grant to help the public access channel with online streaming.

The Coloradoan urged Fort Collins officials to think big and establish public fiber optic broadband in the city.

To manage this, they will have to overcome a 2005 state law backed by Comcast and Qwest (now CenturyLink) that bans municipal telecommunications services. A local vote or federal waiver can sidestep a law that was always designed to restrict competition and make life easier for the two telecom giants.

The newspaper opines that Fort Collins is in no way ready for the digital economy of the 21st century relying on Comcast and CenturyLink.

The cable company’s attention is focused on bigger cities in the state and CenturyLink remains hobbled by its copper legacy infrastructure. While some upgrades have been forthcoming, both Comcast and CenturyLink are also testing usage caps or usage-based billing — just another way to raise the price of the service. And speaking of service, neither Comcast or CenturyLink are answerable to the communities they serve – a community owned broadband alternative would be.

As the Coloradoan writes:

We’ve got to lay the groundwork now. Society took huge steps forward when automobiles replaced the horse and carriage. And no, installing municipal broadband isn’t adopting a new mode of transportation, but it is symbolic of laying an entirely new road.

Look at it another way. The city provides needed services such as water and electricity. Internet access is a needed service.

One thing Fort Collins doesn’t absolutely need Comcast or CenturyLink. But nobody is asking them to leave. They have a choice to use their massive buying power and resources to upgrade their networks to compete. But Fort Collins residents should not have to wait for that day to come when there is a better alternative in their grasp today: public broadband.

 

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