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Wall Street Hissyfit: Raise Broadband Prices to $90/Month Immediately! (Or Else)

If the average customer isn’t paying $90 a month for broadband service, they are paying too little and that needs to stop.

That is the view of persistent rate hike advocate Jonathan Chaplin, a Wall Street analyst with New Street Research, who has advocated for sweeping broadband rate increases for years.

“We have argued that broadband is underpriced, given that pricing has barely increased over the past decade while broadband utility has exploded,” Chaplin wrote in a note to investors. “Our analysis suggested a ‘utility-adjusted’ ARPU target of ~$90. Comcast recently increased standalone broadband to $90 with a modem, paving the way for faster ARPU growth as the mix shifts in favor of broadband-only households. Charter will likely follow, once they are through the integration of Time Warner Cable.”

Companies that fail to raise prices risk being downgraded by analysts with views like these, which can have a direct impact on a stock’s share price and the executive compensation and bonus packages that are often tied to the company’s performance.

But there is a dilemma and disagreement between some cable industry analysts about how much companies can charge their customers. Companies like Cable ONE have been aggressively raising broadband prices to unprecedented levels in some of the poorest communities in the country, which worries fellow Wall Street analyst Craig Moffett from MoffettNathanson LLC.

“Never mind that the per capita income in Cable ONE’s footprint is the lowest (by far) of the companies we [Moffett’s firm] cover, or that the percentage of customers living below the poverty line is the highest (also by far),” Moffett told his investor subscribers. “What matters is that there is very little competition in Cable ONE’s footprint. If you want high-speed broadband, where else are you going to go? The unspoken fear among their larger peers is that over-reliance on broadband pricing invites regulatory intervention, not just for Cable ONE, but for everyone.”

Chaplin thinks the risk from gouging broadband customers is next to zero. With cable TV becoming less profitable every day, all the big profits that can be made will be made from broadband, where cable operators often enjoy a monopoly on high-speed service.

According to Chaplin, if customers value internet access, they will pay the higher prices cable companies charge. So what are companies waiting for? Raise those prices!

Still No Fiber for Southern N.J.: State Settles with Verizon Over Poor Service

South Jersey: The worst broadband problems are in the southernmost counties closest to Delaware.

Customers hoping New Jersey’s telecom regulator would compel Verizon to expand fiber to the home service across southern New Jersey are out of luck.

The New Jersey Board of Public Utilities (BPU) approved a settlement between Verizon New Jersey, Inc., Cumberland County, and 18 southern New Jersey towns that alleged Verizon failed to properly maintain its wireline network in areas where it has chosen not to deploy FiOS — its fiber to the home service. But the settlement will only compel Verizon to maintain its existing copper network and offer token DSL and FiOS expansion in some unserved rural communities.

“We have heard our customers’ concerns in South Jersey and are pleased to have reached an agreement with the approval of all 17 towns on a maintenance plan going forward,” said Ray McConville, a Verizon spokesman. “We look forward to staying in regular communication with the towns to ensure our customers continue to receive the level of service they expect and deserve.”

“While the Board was fully prepared to proceed on this matter, the parties were able to reach a negotiated settlement which takes into consideration the needs of each community,” said Richard S. Mroz, president, N.J. Board of Public Utilities.

But some residents of those communities beg to differ.

“It’s another example of Chris Christie’s hand-picked regulators letting Verizon off the hook and sticking us in a digital divide,” complained Jeff Franklin, a Verizon DSL customer in Cumberland County. “Verizon should not be allowed to offer one half of the state modern broadband while sticking the rest of us with its slow DSL service.”

Franklin is upset that communities bypassed by Verizon’s FiOS network appear to have little chance of getting it in the future, now that regulators have agreed to allow Verizon to fix its own copper network.

“All the Board did was force Verizon to do what it should have been doing all along, taking care of its own network,” Franklin complained to Stop the Cap! 

Verizon did agree to expand its fiber network into the communities of Estell Manor, Weymouth Township, Corbin City, and Lower Alloways Creek Township, but only because of a 2014 agreement with Verizon compelling them to offer broadband to residents who read and complete a “Bona Fide Retail Request” (BFRR) form which stipulates homes and businesses in Verizon’s New Jersey territory can get broadband if they don’t have it now as long as these criteria are met:

  • Have no access to broadband service from a cable provider or Verizon;
  • Have no access to 4G-based wireless service; and
  • Sign a contract for at least one (1) year of broadband service and pay a $100 deposit.

“BFRR is a joke because it requires potential customers have no access to 4G wireless service,” claimed Franklin. “You have to go to the government’s National Broadband Map to determine eligibility, which is very tough because — surprise, surprise — Verizon itself contributed its 4G wireless coverage information for that map and as far as Verizon is concerned, their 4G coverage in New Jersey is beautiful, even though it really isn’t.”

If a single provider submits map data that shows a home address is already covered by 4G wireless service, even if that isn’t accurate on the ground, that customer is ineligible under the terms of BFRR. Even if they were able to subscribe to 4G broadband, most plans are strictly data capped or throttled.

Under the settlement, Verizon gets to choose what technology to deploy. Outside of the four communities getting FiOS, the rest of South Jersey will have to continue relying on Verizon’s DSL service. Verizon has agreed to extend DSL to 2,000 new residences and businesses in Upper Pittsgrove, Downe, Commercial, Mannington, Pilesgrove, and South Harrison. It will also fix some of its DSL speed congestion problems and monitor for future ones as part of the settlement.

But DSL won’t work if Verizon’s wireline network stays in poor shape. The company has agreed to deploy its “Proactive Preventative Maintenance Tool” (PPMT) to scan its copper network to identify and repair or replace defective cables. Verizon has also agreed to daily inspections of outside facilities and fix any detected problems within 30 days, as well as regularly reporting back on the condition of its infrastructure inside the towns affected under the settlement.

This agreement took a year and a half to reach and will keep the two parties out of court, but many are not satisfied being left with Verizon’s DSL service.

“Unfortunately, the BPU continues to allow Verizon to pick and choose which residents will receive modern telecommunications at an affordable cost,” Greg Facemyer, a Hopewell Township committeeman in Cumberland County, told NewsWorks. “The state legislature needs to recognize these inequities and step in and level the playing field for South Jersey. Otherwise, our region will continue to fall even farther behind and be less competitive.”

Comcast Introduces Gigabit DOCSIS 3.1 Broadband in 7 New Cities: $70-109.99/Month

Comcast may be undercutting its own fiber broadband aspirations by introducing a cheaper way for customers to get gigabit broadband service over their existing Comcast cable connection.

Customers in seven new areas, including most of Colorado, Oregon, southwest Washington State, and the cities of Houston, Kansas City, San Francisco and Seattle now have access to Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1-powered gigabit downloads. (Upload speeds are limited to a much less impressive 35Mbps.)

Comcast announced the new communities as part of their gradual rollout of DOCSIS 3.1 — the standard that powers cable broadband — across their national footprint. These communities join Utah, Detroit, Tennessee, Chicago, Atlanta, and Miami where Comcast has already introduced the new speeds.

It is Comcast’s latest foray into gigabit speed broadband, and it is decidedly focused on the cities outside of the northeast (except Boston) where Comcast has not faced significant competition from Google Fiber or AT&T Fiber, both delivering gigabit speed internet access. Verizon FiOS, predominately in the northeast, only recently introduced gigabit speed options for its residential customers. Comcast continues to be among the most aggressive cable operators willing to boost broadband speeds for its customers, in direct contrast to Charter Communications, the second largest cable operator in the country that is predominately focused on selling 60-100Mbps internet packages to its customers.

Comcast sells multiple broadband speed tiers to its customers.

Comcast’s efforts may undercut its own fiber-on-demand project, which wires fiber to the home service for some Comcast customers seeking up to 2Gbps service. That plan comes with a steep installation fee and term commitment, making it a harder sell for customers. Comcast’s DOCSIS-powered gigabit will retail for $159.95 a month, but Comcast is offering pricing promotions ranging from $70-109.99 a month with a one-year term commitment in several cities. The more competition, the lower the price.

In Kansas City, where Google Fiber premiered and AT&T is wiring its own gigabit fiber, Comcast charges $70 a month, price-locked for two years with a one-year contract. Customers who don’t want a contract will pay dearly for that option — $160 a month, which is more than double the promotional price.

In Houston, where AT&T has not exactly blanketed the city with gigabit fiber service and Comcast has been the dominant cable operator for decades, gigabit speed will cost you $109.99 — almost $40 more a month because of the relative lack of competition. Customers who bundle other Comcast services will get a price break however. Upgrading to gigabit service will cost those customers an additional $50 to $70 a month, depending on their current package.

“Additional prices and promotions may be tested in the future,” the company said in a news release.

Comcast does not expect many customers will want to make the jump to gigabit speeds and a higher broadband bill. Rich Jennings, senior vice president of Comcast’s Western/Mountain region, told the Colorado Springs Gazette that gigabit service was a “niche product for people who want that kind of speed.”

Comcast does suspect a number of signups will be from broadband-only customers who don’t subscribe to cable television.

Mike Spaulding, Comcast’s vice president of engineering, thinks the service will appeal most to those who rely entirely on a broadband connection for entertainment and communications.

“There’s not a lot of need for gigabit service for one customer to do one thing,” Spaulding told the Denver Post. “But what it does is enable an even better experience as more devices in the home are streaming, whether it’s video or gaming or whatever they are doing in the home. Most of our customers subscribe to the 100Mbps package today. Less than 10 percent of our customers are in the 200-250Mbps. We’ll see where one gig takes us.”

One place a gig may take customers is perilously close to Comcast’s notorious 1TB usage cap, which is currently enforced in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, New Mexico, Western Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, South Carolina, Utah, Southwest Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin, even for this premium-priced internet tier. Customers exceeding it will automatically pay a $10 overlimit fee for each 50GB of excess usage, up to a maximum of $200 a month. An unlimited ‘insurance plan’ is also available for $50 a month, which removes the 1TB cap.

Customers will have to use a new modem if they upgrade to gigabit service, either renting one from Comcast for around $10 a month or buying a compatible DOCSIS 3.1 modem. Two of the most recommended: the Arris Surfboard SB8200 ($189) or the Netgear CM1000 ($171.99) (prices subject to change).

Frontier Fires West Virginia’s Senate President After He Refused to Block Pro-Competition Bill

Frontier is the dominant phone company in West Virginia.

Frontier Communications terminated the employment of West Virginia Senate president Mitch Carmichael just weeks after he refused to kill a pro-competitive state broadband expansion bill the company fiercely opposed.

Carmichael (R-Jackson), worked for Frontier for six years, most recently as a sales executive. Shortly after voting in favor of a bill making it easier for public broadband co-ops to deliver better broadband service in West Virginia, he was suddenly given two weeks notice his employment was being terminated.

Frontier refused to comment about its sudden decision to eliminate Carmichael’s job, but there is speculation the company was unhappy with Carmichael’s unwillingness to act on their behalf in the state legislature. Carmichael told the Charleston Gazette his dismissal came as a complete surprise, and he was not aware of any other layoffs in recent weeks.

“This was not something I wanted at all,” Carmichael told the newspaper. “They had a bad year, from a legislative perspective. They severed ties from me. 

Carmichael also noted Frontier was insistent on getting him to sign a nondisclosure agreement that would forbid him from talking about his job being terminated. He claims he refused to sign it.

The newspaper calls Carmichael Frontier’s most powerful ally in the state legislature. As Senate president, Carmichael was instrumental in killing a 2016 bill that would have launched a statewide municipal broadband network that Frontier never wanted to see get off the ground. Carmichael argued the competing network would have discouraged Frontier from investing in or expanding its own network, largely acquired from Verizon Communications in 2010. The bill died in the House of Delegates.

Carmichael

But as West Virginians continue to endure poor quality DSL service from Frontier and the company continues to experience financial pressures from its declining stock price and increasing investor discontent, it seemed unlikely Frontier would embark on dramatic new spending to boost internet speeds. This year, legislators proposed allowing up to 20 families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops to offer internet service where Frontier and other providers have failed to expand service. The bill also permits up to three cities or counties to join forces and jointly construct new public broadband networks.

Frontier’s lobbyists loathed the bill, worrying about the prospects of facing new competition. The company devoted significant attention to block the bill in the legislature, but was apparently surprised when Carmichael refused to repeat his 2016 objections and recused himself from debate on the bill, and later voted for it. A short time later, his job was gone.

Whether Frontier assumed Carmichael’s primary loyalty should lay with the company and not the public that elected him to office isn’t known. Ironically, Carmichael tried to leave Frontier last summer after accepting a job with Frontier rival Citynet. Frontier offered a lucrative pay increase to convince Carmichael to change his mind. Ultimately, Carmichael returned to Frontier days later last August after he said the company begged him to stay.

Carmichael makes it clear he wasn’t in office just to represent Frontier’s political and corporate interests.

“The one thing I’m not going to do here as Senate president is advance special interests,” Carmichael told the newspaper. “It was obvious the body [Legislature] wanted that bill, and I wasn’t going to stand in the way of it.”

D.C. Media Ignores Rural Broadband Dilemma While Taking Cheap Shots at Hillary Clinton

Any opportunity to paint Hillary Clinton as an out-of-touch politician rarely escapes the Beltway crowd and some of the media that covers it. Unfortunately, rural America’s broadband problems also get dismissed in the process.

After a 35-minute Hillary Clinton interview with Christiane Amanpour, one takeaway line about how the former presidential candidate felt about rural job creation was seized on by the folks inside-the-D.C. Beltway and used to mock and belittle her:

“If you don’t have access to high-speed, affordable broadband, which large parts of America do not, [large employers will overlook your town]. If you drive around in some of the places that beat the heck out of me, you cannot get cell coverage for miles. And so, even in towns — so, the president was in Harrisburg. I was in Harrisburg during the campaign, and I met with people afterward. One of the things they said to me is that there are places in central Pennsylvania where we don’t have access to affordable high-speed internet.”

As any reader of Stop the Cap! knows, those are very legitimate points. The video embedded below has several more. Available robust internet access at affordable prices attracts employers. Just ask the city of Chattanooga, Tenn.

Anyone who has traveled mountainous central Pennsylvania knows exactly what Mrs. Clinton is talking about. These communities are served by Frontier Communications and Verizon, and the best either company will offer, if you’re lucky, is basic DSL service. There are significant parts of Pennsylvania with no cable provider, and with terrain that often resembles West Virginia — another difficult-to-serve state — wireless is not so great either.

Long term rural Pennsylvanians decried the day the last analog cellular network was switched off. They routinely outperformed the digital network that replaced it in fringe reception zones. Many residents have to use indoor cell tower extenders provided by companies like Verizon Wireless and AT&T to get stable cellular reception, and many rural towns are either a total wireless dead zone or are filled with dead spots where reception evaporates.

Competition from Sprint and T-Mobile don’t mean much in rural Pennsylvania, because neither offer any reception in significant sections of the state, and AT&T and Verizon Wireless can be only nominally better in some areas.

Areas where at least 25Mbps broadband is available in Pennsylvania (Blue – Cable, Brown – Fiber) (Map courtesy of Pennsylvania Department of Community Economic Development)

So like much of the Appalachians, rural broadband is a very big problem in central Pennsylvania. Candidate Clinton proposed spending billions to augment rural broadband service, presumably by offering matching funds and grants to rural telephone companies. Although saddling rural areas with indefinite DSL service is not an ideal solution, it offers more than the Trump Administration’s apparent willingness to coddle incumbent providers with more deregulation and less oversight.

But the D.C. chattering class ignored the entire question of rural broadband problems in America and according to the Washington Post, selectively edited Mrs. Clinton’s statement into a whiny complaint she couldn’t get enough bars on her cell phone while campaigning in areas across the state where she ultimately lost:

Elliot is a reporter for Time magazine. If he can take her quote out of context on Twitter, is that a routine practice in Time magazine as well?

Zach Wolf manages @CNNPolitics for the cable news channel. That does not inspire confidence in CNN.

Clinton Soffer is a regional National Republican Senatorial Committee director, so his shot is at least politically predictable, but easy enough to identify as partisan.

Of course, nobody is talking about the real issue, which isn’t whether Hillary Clinton is a limousine liberal or not. It’s the bipartisan problem of downright lousy or non-existent rural broadband, a problem that incumbent providers won’t do much about unless the government arm-twists them into expansion when companies launch another merger or acquisition that needs government approval, or better yet for them, if taxpayer or ratepayer dollars help foot the bill.

At the same time this kerfuffle was going on, a private company selling VPN services decided to embark on a questionable survey asking whether Americans think broadband is a “human right” or simply a nice thing to have if you can get it.

Results of survey conducted by AnchorFree, which sells VPN services to consumers.

In April, AnchorFree surveyed an audience of over 2,000 consumers, ages 18+ about online privacy. This survey was completed online and was completely anonymous — two points that rendered it largely useless for actual opinion measurement. Online surveys are notoriously unreliable because they are heavily weighted toward those that found the survey on a website most Americans would not likely have visited, and AnchorFree offers no reliable evidence of an appropriate measurement of different demographic groups to get a properly mixed sample of opinions. In this case, we predict about 80-90% of respondents were young, male, and paranoid enough about online security to warrant shopping around for a VPN provider. But the survey does at least highlight the real issue of “not my problem” thinking that impacts on rural broadband public policy.

AnchorFree’s study asked these 2,000 visitors to its website whether they felt the internet was a “human right” or a privilege. That question was more weighted than a circus elephant, because it suggests Americans were entitled to a broadband account, presumably paid for by the government. Only one out of three respondents agreed it was “a human right.” The survey mentioned the language came from a United Nations declaration, without linking to it, which is another surefire way to get about the half the country riled up enough over the UN to stampede in the other direction.

Nobody responsible for the survey explained the premise for the UN declaration, which was first to declare broadband an extension of freedom of expression, so long as it was affordable, available, and uncensored.

It is easy to demagogue Lifeline phone service and affordable broadband as a type of welfare, as Drudge Report did in 2015.

“The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression,” according to the report’s summary, “but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.”

It did not say broadband should be free of charge, but at least it should be available. That means just as electricity and telephone service are available today to every American that wants either or both, so should broadband.

The very thought of someone effectively paying for someone else’s broadband service went down about as well as increasing welfare benefits with survey respondents. Some people also love to make decisions on behalf of others, which is why the survey also revealed a lot of broadband selfishness. Among those who told AnchorFree broadband was only a privilege, 64% exempted themselves, declaring it was essential to them, while only 18% said it might be essential for others. How nice.

This is why it can be easy to demagogue broadband expansion programs as an unnecessary luxury. AnchorFree’s study isn’t very useful or credible on its own because the questions asked and the responses given appear in context with AnchorFree’s own agenda of peddling its products and services. Its methodology is suspect, but the results are not completely surprising.

How the rural broadband problem is framed in language can make a significant difference in how the problem is tackled. If the survey asked if Americans were in favor of guaranteed universal access to quality broadband service, the results would likely have been more favorable. Hillary Clinton’s campaign had not pledged this and her broadband platform was based primarily on spending more money to cajole phone companies to expand their networks, perhaps alluding this alone might solve the problem. It won’t for at least the last 1-2% of unserved America, because those last users will be hellishly expensive to reach. But Mrs. Clinton, and rural America, deserved something more than cheap shots about cell phone reception as part of the media’s narrative she was out of touch with rural voters. On the issue of broadband, she put her finger precisely on the problem after just visiting the area. The locals have to live with it and there are no signs this will change anytime soon.

In an interview with Christiane Amanpour at a Women for Women International event, Hillary Clinton spoke about creating jobs and the importance of access to high-speed affordable broadband in rural towns. (Women for Women International) (1:12)

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  • FredH: Like cable company CEOs need to be told to raise prices by some a-hole Wall Street analyst....
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