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The Stage Is Set to Kill Telco ADSL: Cable Operators Prepare for DOCSIS 3.1 Competitive Assault

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Next year’s upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 will support cable broadband speeds up to one gigabit shortly after introduction.

Telephone companies relying on traditional ADSL service to power their broadband offering will likely face a renewed competitive assault in 2016 that will further reduce their already-challenged market share in areas where cable companies compete.

Cable operators are hungry for profitable broadband customers and the best place to find new prospects is at the phone company, where DSL is still a common technology to deliver Internet access. But while cable Internet speeds have risen, significant DSL speed hikes have proven more modest in the residential market.

In 2016, the cable industry intends to poach some of the remaining price-sensitive holdouts still clinging to DSL with revised broadband offers promising more speed for the dollar.

Cable broadband has already proven itself a runaway success when matched against telephone company DSL service. Over the last year, Strategy Analytics found Comcast and Time Warner Cable alone signed up a combined 71 percent of the three million new broadband customers in the U.S.

“Cable operators continue to increase market share in U.S. broadband,” said Jason Blackwell, a director at Strategy Analytics. “Over the past twelve months, Comcast has accounted for 42 percent of new subscribers among the operators that we track.  Fiber growth is still strong, but the telco operators haven’t been able to shake off the losses of DSL subscribers.  In 2016, we expect to see a real battle in broadband, as cable operators begin to roll out DOCSIS 3.1 for even higher speed offers, placing additional pressure on telcos.”

That battle will come in the form of upgraded economy broadband plans, many arriving shortly after providers upgrade to the DOCSIS 3.1 cable broadband platform. Currently those plans offer speeds ranging from 2-6Mbps. Starting next year, customers can expect economy plan prices to stay generally comparable to DSL, with promises of faster and more consistent speeds. A source tells Stop the Cap! at least two significant cable operators are considering 10Mbps to be an appropriate entry-level broadband speed for 2016, in keeping with FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler’s dislike of Internet speeds below 10Mbps.

slowJust a few years earlier, most providers wouldn’t think of offering discounted 10Mbps service, fearing it would cannibalize revenue as customers downgraded to get lower priced service. Increasing demands on bandwidth from online video and multiple in-home users have gradually raised consumer expectations, and their need for speed.

Unfortunately for many phone companies that have neglected significant investment in their aging wireline networks, the costs to keep up with cable will become unmanageable unless investors are willing to tolerate significant growth in capital expenses to pay for network upgrades. Frontier Communications still claims most of their customers are satisfied with 6Mbps DSL, neglecting to mention many of those customers live in areas where cable competition (or faster service from Frontier) is not available.

Where competition does exist, it’s especially bad news for phone companies that still rely on DSL. Earlier this year, Frontier’s former CEO Maggie Wilderotter admitted Frontier’s share of the residential broadband market had dropped to less than 25% in 26 of the 27 states where it provides service. In Connecticut, the one state where Frontier was doing better, its acquired AT&T U-verse system has enabled the phone company to deliver broadband speeds up to 100Mbps. But even those speeds do not satisfy state officials who are seeking proposals from providers to build a gigabit fiber network in a public-private partnership.

DSL speed upgrades have been spotty and more modest.

DSL speed upgrades have been spotty and more modest.

Frontier’s recent experiments with fiber to the home service in a small part of Durham, N.C., and the unintentional revelation of a gigabit broadband inquiry page on Frontier’s website suggests the company may be exploring at least a limited rollout of gigabit fiber service in the state. But company officials have also repeatedly stressed in quarterly results conference calls there were no significant plans to embark on a major spending program to deliver major upgrades across their service areas.

Some phone companies may have little choice except to offer upgrades where cable operators are continuing to rob them of customers. In the northeast, where Frontier has a substantial presence, cable operators including Charter, Comcast and Time Warner Cable are committing to additional speed upgrades. Time Warner Cable’s current standard speed of 15Mbps will rise to 50-60Mbps in 2016, up to ten times faster than Frontier’s most popular “up to” 6Mbps DSL plan.

Most of the broadband customer gains won by Comcast and Time Warner Cable come as a result of DSL disconnects. AT&T said goodbye to 106,000 customers during the third quarter. Verizon managed to pick up 2,000 new subscribers overall, almost all signing up for FiOS fiber to the home service. No cable operator lost broadband market share, reported analyst firm Evercore. Leichtman Research offered additional insight, finding AT&T and Verizon were successful adding 305,000 U-verse and FiOS broadband customers, while losing 432,000 DSL customers during the same quarter.

The message to phone companies couldn’t be clearer: upgrade your networks or else.

Irish Consumers Try to Keep Up With Telecom Company Rate Cuts

Phillip Dampier November 23, 2015 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 1 Comment

Here’s a problem most North Americans wish they had: confusing rate cuts that are coming as a result of fierce competition for your telecom dollar.

In Ireland, the problem is real and some consumers are finding themselves perplexed watching the cost of broadband, telephone, and television service dropping by as much as $159 a year from the four different providers competing across much of the country. Telco Eircom has a 35% market share (39% in 2013), UPC/Virgin Media Cable – 28% (25% in 2013), Vodafone – 21% (17% in 2013), and Sky – 12% (1% in 2013).

“Neighbors are talking to one another and comparing bills only to find some are paying less than others even though they have the same types of services,” says Richard Donahue, a Dublin resident turned compulsive comparison shopper. “Because competition is getting stronger, local providers are pushing to get customers into bundles of services to keep them from switching.”

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The result is lower pricing to help convince consumers to take all of their business to one provider. The ongoing drop in the price of telephone, television and broadband service has now been measured by Comreg, Ireland’s telecoms regulator. It released a report this month stating prices have “fallen significantly for the average Irish household.”

Consumers willing to make providers fight for their business are saving over $100 a year on bundled service packages. Comreg reported that even without asking, the average consumer subscribing to a package of television and broadband service has seen prices fall by nearly $75 a year across the board. Those also subscribing to telephone service are paying around $50 less a year. Only the cost of standalone broadband has remained the same, but that price has stayed close to what the Irish consider an acceptable range for Internet access — between $15 and $40 a month.

Irish cable competitor UPC (now Virgin Media) sells a package of 240Mbps broadband with an unlimited calling landline for around $50 a month.

Irish cable competitor UPC (now Virgin Media) sells a package of 240Mbps broadband with an unlimited calling landline for around $50 a month.

“Standalone broadband pricing may not be falling, but it isn’t rising either,” reports Donahue. “Service has improved with faster speeds and better reliability so you receive better value for money.”

Even mobile service prices are down by almost $90 a year, but there are some caveats.

“Ireland has one significant mobile problem yet to be sorted — the penalty for breaching allowances, which can be substantial,” Donahue said. “Comreg found almost a third of Ireland has received a warning text from a provider about nearing a limit provided by our allowances for voice minutes, texts, or data.”

Donahue adds the Irish are reticent about changing mobile providers, even if it would save them money.

“We love to complain about poor providers in this country that drop calls and leave us without coverage but 73 percent of us have not changed our provider in at least three years,” he reports. “Most don’t believe there are any savings doing so.”

Ireland appears to be a few years behind North American trends dealing with telecom services. The Comreg report found:

  • Only 9 percent of Irish households subscribe to Netflix
  • 76% of Irish mobile users still text back and forth but are gradually shifting towards app-based messaging services like Hangouts, Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp
  • 43% of those watching online video report watching less traditional live/linear TV
  • Only about 58% of mobile users browse the web with their phones
  • 60% of broadband users couldn’t tell you what broadband speeds they receive/are supposed to receive
  • 88% of those 65+ still have landline phone service, while 46% of those 18-24 still use landlines to make and receive calls.

AT&T U-verse with GigaPower Gigabit Internet Dribs and Drabs Out in 23 New Cities

u-verse gigapowerAT&T has introduced 23 new communities and adjacent service areas in North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Texas, and Tennessee to the possibility of getting gigabit broadband speeds, if customers are willing to wait for AT&T to reach their home or small business.

Here are the latest cities on AT&T’s new launch list:

  • Florida: Coral Gables, Homestead, Miami Gardens, North Miami, Oviedo, Sanford, and Parkland
  • Georgia: Alpharetta, Cartersville, Duluth, East Point, Avondale Estates, Jonesboro, and Rome
  • Illinois: Bolingbrook, Mundelein, Shorewood, Elmwood Park, Volo, and parts of Munster, Ind.
  • North Carolina: Clemmons, Garner, Holly Springs and Salisbury
  • Tennessee: Spring Hill and Gallatin
  • Texas:  Hunters Creek Village and Rosenberg

AT&T claims its fiber to the home service will eventually reach more than 14 million customers across its service area, but adds it will only reach a fraction of them – one million – by the end of 2015. Most customers will have around a 7% chance of getting gigabit speeds from AT&T this year.



In Salisbury, N.C., where Fibrant delivers community-owned broadband at speeds up to 10Gbps, AT&T gave space in its press release for Rep. Harry Warren, the local Republican member of the state House of Representatives, to praise the phone company.

“I’m excited about this new development, and appreciate AT&T’s continued investment in Rowan County,” Warren said.

Warren says he fought to protect Fibrant from a 2011 state law — drafted by the state’s largest phone and cable companies — that effectively outlawed community-owned broadband competition. But he, along with most of his Republican colleagues, also voted in favor of it.

Earlier this year, Federal Communications Commission chairman Thomas Wheeler announced the FCC would pre-empt municipal broadband bans in North Carolina and Tennessee. Warren told the Salisbury Post he wondered if Wheeler was guilty of “federal overreach.”

“That’s my biggest concern about it,” he said.

Both AT&T and Time Warner Cable have been regular contributors to Warren’s campaigns since 2010.



State Sen. Andrew Brock, also a Republican, told the newspaper Wheeler’s actions show how out of touch the Obama Administration is with “technology and the pocketbooks of American families.”

“I find it interesting that a bureaucrat that is not beholden to the people can make such a claim without going through Congress,” Brock said.

The year Brock voted in favor of banning community broadband competition in North Carolina, he received $3,750 from telecom companies. This election cycle, Time Warner Cable is his second largest contributor. AT&T and CenturyLink also each donated $1,000 to Brock’s campaign fund.

While AT&T is free to expand its gigabit U-verse upgrade as fast or as slow as it chooses, the community providers that delivered gigabit speeds well before AT&T are limited by state law from expanding service outside of their original service areas or city limits. In plain English, that effectively gives AT&T state-sanctioned authority to decide who will receive gigabit speeds and who will not.

The FCC’s pre-emption, if upheld despite ongoing challenges from Republican lawmakers on the state and federal level, could allow Fibrant to join forces with other municipal providers in North Carolina to expand fiber broadband to new communities around the state.

Frontier: Less is More – Deregulate² and Stop Bugging Us About Broadband Speeds

frontier frankRequiring Frontier Communications to increase broadband speeds could make the service unaffordable for rural and poor Americans, the company is arguing before federal and state regulators.

In separate filings with the New York Public Service Commission and the Federal Communications Commission, Frontier has asked both for further deregulation and less oversight to ease everything from minimum broadband speed definitions to video franchising regulations.

Frontier’s market focus is primarily on rural communities where it delivers traditional DSL broadband service, typically up to 6Mbps, although many customers complain they get lower speeds than advertised. The FCC is working to modernize the Lifeline program, which offers substantial discounts on basic telephone service to low-income Americans. The Commission is studying the possibility of requiring providers to offer Lifeline Internet access for the first time. What worries Frontier is the Commission’s proposed requirement that providers offer Lifeline Internet speeds starting at 10/1Mbps, something Frontier strongly opposes.

frontier dslFrontier’s ability to deliver consistent 10Mbps service in rural areas is the issue.

“Certain rural consumers […] may not currently have access to 10/1Mbps fixed Internet speeds and would thus be prevented from choosing to use Lifeline for a fixed Internet service,” Frontier wrote in its filing with the Commission. “Even if higher speeds are available, a minimum speed standard may prevent a customer from opting for a lower speed plan that may better meet their budget.”

Frontier told the Commission that most subscribers are happy buying 6Mbps service from Frontier, coincidentally the same speed it advertises as widely available across its service areas. Frontier argues if it was required to consistently provide 10Mbps service, the cost of the service may become unaffordable to many.

While Frontier argues against speed standards that are difficult for its aging copper-based network to consistently provide, it is using that same copper network as an argument against further regulation and oversight in New York.

“Traditional telephone service providers like Frontier continue to be legitimate and viable competitors in the marketplace—a testament to our tenacity and the quality of our services,” Frontier wrote in comments to the Public Service Commission. “To ensure that this continues to be the case, in the near-term, an immediate no-cost investment that the State can make in the existing copper-based network is to eliminate the regulatory requirements that apply to [traditional phone companies] but that do not apply to other telecommunications providers.

Frontier added, “consumers have a multitude of communications channels available to them including wireline and wireless voice services and wireline, wireless, cable and satellite broadband services.”

Frontier did West Virginia few favors when it took over Verizon's landline business in the state.

Frontier did West Virginia few favors when it took over Verizon’s landline business in the state.

Ironically, Frontier argued New York’s allegedly robust and fast broadband networks (offered by its competitors but usually not itself) are reason enough to support a “light regulatory touch.”

“Today, every municipality in New York has access to one or more wired or wireless networks that can provide voice, video and data services to residents and businesses,” Frontier claimed. “Over 95% of the state has access to the FCC benchmark speed of 25/3 Mbps and 98% of the State has 200kbps speed in at least one direction. New York’s broadband speeds are significantly faster than the national average and other countries.”

But Frontier failed to mention it is incapable of providing consistent access at or above the FCC benchmark speed because it still relies on a antiquated copper-based network throughout most of its New York service areas. Despite Frontier’s claims of offering quality service, the J.D. Power U.S. Residential Telephone Service Provider Satisfaction Study (2015) ranks Frontier dead last among all significant providers in the eastern U.S. It dropped Frontier this year from consideration for its Internet Provider Satisfaction Study, but a year earlier rated Frontier the worst ISP in the eastern U.S.

Although Frontier suggests it faces “robust competition” from “over 100 different broadband providers, especially at lower speeds,” in most of its service areas in New York it faces Time Warner Cable or no competitor at all.

Frontier’s latest defense over why it has failed to significantly upgrade its network infrastructure to remain competitive with cable is ‘customers don’t want or need faster speeds.’ While advertising lightning fast service on its acquired Verizon FiOS and AT&T U-verse networks, Frontier argues New York regulators “must keep in mind the consumer demands on broadband speeds.”

Frontier points to two rural broadband projects in New York, one in Hamilton County and the other in Warren County to make its speed argument (emphasis ours):

“These projects are examples of the importance of collaboration and innovation—rather than dogmatic adherence to performance requirements that are largely aspirational for many NYS citizen—in bringing high quality and transformative broadband access to unserved and underserved communities. Flexibility with regard to technology and broadband speed will enhance an already robust marketplace and result in greater affordability and access.”

Frontier has also told New York officials it wants to eliminate local oversight of video franchising and move New York to a “statewide video franchising” system to “promote competition and to streamline competitive entry into the video market in the state.”

“This will provide enhanced consumer choice as well as additional investment in broadband and video services,” Frontier argued. “In other states that have followed this model, such as Connecticut, consumers have a rich array of video providers and services from which to choose at competitive prices.”

That “rich array of video providers” in Connecticut is primarily Cablevision and Frontier. Frontier acquired a pre-existing U-verse network originally owned and operated by AT&T in the state.

New York Attorney General Launches Investigation Into Broadband Speeds and Performance



(Reuters) – New York state’s attorney general is probing whether three major Internet providers could be shortchanging consumers by charging them for faster broadband speeds and failing to deliver the speeds being advertised, according to documents seen by Reuters.

The letters, sent on Friday to executives at Verizon Communications, Cablevision Systems, and Time Warner Cable ask each company to provide copies of all disclosures they have made to customers, as well as copies of any testing they may have done of their Internet speeds.

“New Yorkers deserve the Internet speeds they pay for. But, it turns out, many of us may be paying for one thing, and getting another,” Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement.

In statements, spokesmen for the three companies expressed confidence in the speeds of their Internet services.

“We’re confident that we provide our customers the speeds and services we promise them and look forward to working with the AG to resolve this matter,” Time Warner Cable spokesman Bobby Amirshahi said.

Cablevision spokesman Charlie Schueler said the company’s Optimum Online service “consistently surpasses advertised broadband speeds, including in FCC (Federal Communications Commission) and internal tests. We are happy to provide any necessary performance information to the Attorney General as we do to our customers.”

A Verizon spokesman said the company would cooperate with Schneiderman’s office. “Verizon is confident in the robust and reliable Internet speeds it delivers to subscribers,” the spokesman said.

BroadbandMap_rev1The attorney general’s investigation is particularly focused on so-called interconnection arrangements, or contractual deals that Internet service providers strike with other networks for the mutual exchange of data.

In the letters, Schneiderman’s office says it is concerned that customers paying a premium for higher speeds may be experiencing a disruption in their service due to technical problems and business disputes over interconnection agreements.

A 2014 study by the Measurement Lab Consortium, or M-Lab, found that customers’ Internet service tended to suffer at points where their broadband providers connected with long-haul Internet traffic carriers, including Cogent Communications Group.

“Internet service provider interconnection has a substantial impact on consumer Internet performance – sometimes a severely negative impact,” the study said, adding that business relationships rather than technical issues were often at the root of the problem.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the 2014 study’s findings, coupled with consumer complaints and internal analysis, prompted the inquiry into Internet speeds.

Some of the letters also raise questions about speeds delivered by Time Warner Cable and Cablevision to consumers over “the last mile,” a term that refers to the point where a telecommunication chain reaches a retail consumer’s devices.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Peter Cooney, Christian Plumb and Jonathan Oatis)

Stop the Cap! Testimony to N.Y. Public Service Commission Advocating Major Telecom Study

logoOctober 20, 2015

Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess
Secretary, Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223-1350

Dear Ms. Burgess,

New York State’s digital economy is in trouble.

While providers claim portions of New York achieve some of the top broadband speeds in the country, the vast majority of the state has been left behind by cable and phone companies that have never been in a hurry to deliver the top shelf telecom services that New Yorkers need and deserve.

The deregulation policies of the recent past have resulted in entrenched de facto monopoly and duopoly markets with little or no oversight. Those policies, instead of benefiting New Yorkers, are ultimately responsible for allowing two companies to dominate the state’s telecommunications marketplace.

In virtually all of upstate New York, the services consumers receive depend entirely on the business priorities of local incumbent providers, not market forces or customer demand. As a result, New Yorkers face relentless, unchecked rate increases, well-documented abysmal and unresponsive customer service, and inadequate broadband provided by a workforce under siege from downsizing, cost-cutting, and outsourcing.

Certain markets, particularly those in the New York City area, have at least secured a promise of better broadband from Verizon’s FiOS fiber to the home upgrade. But at least 100,000 New Yorkers have languished on Verizon’s “waiting list,” as the company drags its feet on Non Standard Installation orders.[1] In upstate New York, Verizon walked away from its FiOS expansion effort five years ago, leaving only a handful of wealthy suburbs furnished with fiber service while effectively abandoning urban communities like Buffalo and Syracuse with nothing better than Verizon’s outdated DSL, which does not meet the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband – 25Mbps.[2]

Cablevision’s broadband performance dramatically improved because of investment in network upgrades, and the company has been well-regarded for its broadband service ever since.[3] But the proposed new owner of Cablevision – Altice, NV — has sought “cost savings” from cuts totaling $900 million a year, which will almost certainly devastate that provider’s future investments, its engineering and repair crews, and customer service.[4]

At least downstate New York has the prospect for +100Mbps broadband service. In upstate New York, three providers define the broadband landscape for most cities and towns:

  • Time Warner Cable dominates upstate New York with its cable broadband service and has the largest market share for High Speed Internet. As of today, Time Warner Cable’s top broadband speed outside of New York City is just 50Mbps, far less than the 1,000Mbps service cities in other states are now on track to receive or are already getting.[5]
  • Verizon Communications is the largest ILEC in upstate New York. Outside of its very limited FiOS service areas, customers depend on Verizon’s DSL service at speeds no better than 15Mbps, below the FCC’s minimum speed to qualify as broadband;[6]
  • Frontier Communications has acquired FiOS networks from Verizon in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest, and AT&T U-verse in Connecticut. Frontier has made no significant investment or effort to bring FiOS or U-verse into New York State. In fact, in its largest New York service area, Rochester, there are significant areas that can receive no better than 3.1Mbps DSL from Frontier. The vast majority of Frontier customers in New York do not receive service that meets the FCC’s minimum definition of broadband, and some investors predict the company is “headed for financial disaster.”[7]

The competitive markets the DPS staff envisions in its report to the Commission are largely a mirage. When an ILEC like Frontier Communications admits its residential broadband market share “is less than 25% in our 27 states excluding Connecticut,” that is clear evidence the marketplace has rejected Frontier’s legacy DSL service and does not consider the company an effective competitor.[8]

While incumbent cable and phone companies tout ‘robust competition’ for service in New York, if the Commission investigated the market share of Time Warner Cable upstate, it would quickly realize that ‘robust competition’ has been eroding for years, with an ongoing shift away from DSL providers towards cable broadband.[9]

Frontier’s primary market focus is on rural communities where it often enjoys a monopoly and can deliver what we believe to be inadequate service to a captive customer base. The company is currently facing a class action lawsuit in West Virginia, where it is alleged to have failed to provide advertised broadband speeds and delivers poor service.[10]

Verizon’s ongoing investment in its legacy wireline network (and expansion of DSL to serve new customers) has been regularly criticized as woefully inadequate.[11] From all indications, we expect the company will eventually sell its legacy wireline networks, particularly those upstate, within the next 5-10 years as it has done in northern New England (sold to FairPoint Communications) and proposes to do in Texas, California, and Florida.[12] (Verizon also sold off its service areas in Hawaii, West Virginia, and much of its territory acquired from GTE.)

Across New York, service problems and controversial deals between telecom providers have made headlines. Here are just a few:

  1. Superstorm Sandy’s impact on Verizon’s legacy wireline network on Fire Island and in other downstate communities left many without service. Instead of repairing the damage, Verizon proposed to scrap its wireline network and substitute inferior wireless service with no possibility of wired broadband.[13] The DPS received a large number of comments from the public and local elected officials fiercely opposed to this proposal, one that Verizon eventually withdrew in the face of overwhelming opposition.[14]
  2. There are growing allegations Verizon may be underspending on its legacy wireline network and even worse, may be misallocating costs and revenues to deceive the Commission.[15] Some allege much of the company’s ongoing investments, charged to the wireline operation, in reality are for the benefit of its wireless network. This may have allowed Verizon Communications/New York to claim significant losses on its wireline books the company then argued justified rate increases on ratepayers.[16] A full scale accounting of Verizon’s books is essential for all concerned and corrective action may be necessary if these allegations are proven true.
  3. Verizon’s foot-dragging on FiOS buildouts in New York City led to a damning audit report commissioned by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio this summer and oversight hearings were held last week by the City Council of New York.[17] [18] Despite Verizon’s creative definition of “homes passed,” a substantial number of New Yorkers cannot receive the benefits of “today’s networks” the DPS staff refers to. Instead, many are stuck with poorly-performing DSL or no service at all.[19] Regardless of whether fiber passes in front of, over, in between, or behind buildings, Verizon signed an agreement compelling them to give customers a clear timeline to establish FiOS service. It is apparent Verizon is not meeting its obligations.[20]
  4. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Comcast led the Commission’s staff to admit the majority of respondents to requests for public input were strongly opposed to the merger and without substantial modifications concluded would not be in the public interest.[21] Comcast eventually withdrew its proposal in the face of overwhelming opposition.
  5. The proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Charter Communications, where the DPS staff concluded as the application stood, there would be no public interest benefits to the transaction.[22]

Those are just a few examples of why aggressive oversight of telecommunications is critical for all New Yorkers. In most of these examples, the DPS never ruled one way or the other. The companies individually made their own decisions, and we believe they would have decided differently if they did not face grassroots opposition from consumers.

New Yorkers deserve an active DPS prepared to aggressively represent our interests, ready to investigate what Verizon is doing with its legacy wireline network, legacy wired broadband services, FiOS and Verizon Wireless. With Time Warner Cable having such a dominant presence in western and central New York, its sale should never be taken lightly, as it will impact millions of New Yorkers for years to come.

While the DPS seems prepared to passively wait around to discover what Time Warner Cable, Frontier and Verizon are planning next, the rest of the country is getting speed upgrades New York can only dream about.

Google Fiber and AT&T, among others, are aggressively rolling out 1,000Mbps fiber service upgrades in other states, while a disinterested Verizon refuses to invest further in FiOS expansion, leaving millions of New York customers with nothing better than DSL.

The lack of significant competition upstate is why we believe Time Warner Cable has not yet chosen any market in New York except New York City for its Maxx upgrade program, which offers substantially faster speeds and better service.[23] There is no compelling competitive reason for Time Warner to hurry upgrades into areas where they already enjoy a vast market share and no threat of a broadband speed race. So much for robust competition.

Charter’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable proposes a modest upgrade of broadband speeds to 60-100Mbps, but as we wrote in our comments to the DPS regarding the merger proposal, upstate New York would be better off waiting for Time Warner Cable to complete its own Maxx upgrades over what will likely be 100% of its footprint in the next 24-30 months.[24] Time Warner Cable Maxx offers maximum broadband speeds three times faster than what Charter proposes for upstate New York, while also preserving affordable broadband options for those less fortunate. Approving a Charter buyout of Time Warner Cable will only set upstate New York back further.

We confess we were bewildered after reviewing the initial staff assessment of telecommunications services competition in New York. Its conclusions simply do not reflect reality on the ground, particularly in upstate communities.

It was this type of incomplete analysis that allowed New York to fall into the trap of irresponsible deregulation and abdication of oversight that has utterly failed to deliver the promised competition that would check rate hikes, guarantee better customer service, and provide New York with best-in-class service. In reality, we have none of those things. Rates continue to spiral higher, poor customer service continues, and New York has been left behind with sub-standard broadband that achieves no better than 50Mbps speeds in most upstate communities.

This summer, the American Customer Satisfaction Index told us something we already know. Americans dislike their cable company more than any other industry in the nation.[25] A survey of more than 14,000 customers by ACSI found service satisfaction achieving a new all-time low, scoring 63 out of 100.

“Customers expect a lot more than what the companies deliver,” said ACSI managing director David VanAmburg, who called poor customer service from cable operators “endemic.”

This year, Time Warner Cable again scored the worst in the country. As the only cable provider for virtually all of upstate New York, if residents in New York are given a choice between Time Warner Cable and the phone company’s slow-speed DSL, they are still likely to choose Time Warner Cable, but only because they have no other choices for broadband that meets the FCC definition of broadband.

Providers are quick to suggest consumers can turn to so-called competitors like satellite broadband or wireless Internet from mobile providers. They conveniently ignore the fact satellite-delivered Internet is such a provider of last resort, less than 1% of New Yorkers choose this option. Those that have used satellite broadband tell the companies providing it they rarely achieve the claimed speeds and are heavily speed throttled and usage capped.[26] It’s also costly, particularly when measuring the price against its performance.

Mobile Internet, which some ILECs have advocated as a possible replacement for rural wireline networks, is also a very poor substitute for wired Internet access. Wireless broadband pricing is high and usage allowances are low. Attempts to convince New Yorkers to abandon Verizon landline service in favor of Verizon’s 4G LTE wireless replacement have led to consumer complaints after learning their existing unlimited Verizon DSL service would be substituted for a wireless plan starting at $60 a month with a 10GB usage allowance.[27]

A customer with a 6Mbps DSL line from Verizon consuming 30GB of usage a month – hardly a heavy user – pays Verizon $29.99 a month for DSL service during the first year. In contrast, that same customer using Verizon Wireless’ home 2-5Mbps wireless LTE plan will pay $120 a month – four times more, with the added risk of incurring a $10 per gigabyte overlimit fee for usage in excess of their allowance.[28]

None of this information is a secret, yet it seems to have escaped the notice of the DPS staff in its report. Part of the reason why may be the complete lack of public input to help illuminate and counter incumbent providers’ well-financed public and government relations self-praise campaigns. If only actual customers agreed with their conclusions, we’d be well on our way to deregulation-inspired broadband nirvana.

Except New Yorkers do not agree all is well.

Consumer Reports:

Our latest survey of 81,848 customers of home telecommunications services found almost universally low ratings for value across services—especially for TV and Internet. Those who bundled the three services together for a discount still seemed unimpressed with what they were getting for their money. Even WOW and Verizon FiOS, which got high marks for service satisfaction, rated middling or lower for value, and out of 14 providers, nine got the lowest possible value rating.

What is it about home telecommunications that leaves such a sour taste in customers’ mouths? When we asked Consumer Reports’ Facebook followers to tell us their telecom stories, the few happy anecdotes of attentive service technicians and reliable service were overwhelmed by a tidal wave of consumer woe involving high prices, complicated equipment, and terrible service.[29]

The effective competition that would rely on market forces to deter abusive pricing and poor customer service is simply not available in a monopoly/duopoly marketplace. New entrants face enormous start-up costs, particularly provisioning last-mile service.

The nation’s telephone network was first constructed in the early half of the last century by providers guaranteed monopoly status. The cable industry developed during a period where regulators frequently considered operators to be a “natural monopoly,” unable to survive sustained competition.[30] Many cable operators were granted exclusive franchise agreements which helped them present a solid business case to investors to fund a costly network buildout. The end of franchise exclusivity happened years after most cable operators were already well established.

Today, those marketplace protections are unavailable to new entrants who face a variety of hurdles to achieve success. Some are competitive, others are regulatory. Google Fiber, which provides competitive service in states other than New York, publishes a guide for local communities to make them more attractive prospects for future Google Fiber expansion.[31]

For many overbuilders, pole attachment issues, zoning and permitting are significant obstacles to making new service available to residential and commercial customers. New York must ensure pole owners provide timely, non-discriminatory, and reasonable cost access. Permitting and zoning issues should be resolved on similar terms to speed network deployment.

Because a long history of experience tells us it is unreasonable to expect a competing telephone or cable company to enter another provider’s territory, in many cases the only significant possibility for competition will come from a new municipal/co-op/public-owned broadband alternative.

The hurdles these would-be providers face are significant. Incumbent provider opposition can be substantial, especially on a large-scale buildout. In rural areas, incumbents can and do refuse to cooperate, even on projects that seek to prioritize access first to unserved/underserved areas currently bypassed by those incumbents.

The effort to wire the Adirondack Park region is a case in point. Time Warner Cable has refused to provide detailed mapping information about their existing network, making it difficult to assess the viability of a municipal and/or a commercial broadband expansion project into these areas. Time Warner Cable maintains it has exclusivity to granular map data showing existing networks for “competitive reasons,” effectively maintaining an advantageous position from which it can strategically apply for state broadband expansion funding to expand its network using public funds.

Time Warner Cable benefits from access to publicly-owned rights of way and sanctioned easements. Without this access, their network would likely be untenable. As a beneficiary of that public access, making granular map data available to broadband planners is a fair exchange, and nothing precludes Time Warner from building its network into those unserved/underserved areas – something that might deter a would-be competitor’s business argument to overbuild a high-cost, rural area. The Commission should ask itself how many rural New York communities have two (or more) competing cable companies serving the same customers. If the answer is none, Time Warner Cable does not have a valid argument.

There is ample evidence the Commission needs to begin a full and comprehensive review of telecommunications in this state. It must build a factual, evidence-based record on which the Commission can build a case that oversight is needed to guarantee New Yorkers get the high quality telecommunications services they deserve.

Broadband and telephone service is not just a convenience. In September 2015, the Obama Administration declared broadband was now a “core utility,” just as important as telephone, electric, and natural gas service. Isn’t it about time the Department of Public Service oversee it as such?[32]

Respectfully submitted for your consideration,

Phillip M. Dampier

Director, Stop the Cap!

[1] http://stopthecap.com/2015/10/19/n-y-city-council-investigates-verizon-foot-dragging-fios-possible-contract-violations/
[2] http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702303410404575151773432729614
[3] https://www.fcc.gov/reports/measuring-broadband-america-2014
[4] http://variety.com/2015/biz/news/altice-group-patrick-drahi-cablevision-bid-1201599986/
[5] http://www.pcmag.com/slideshow/story/310861/if-you-want-gigabit-internet-move-here/1
[6] https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-finds-us-broadband-deployment-not-keeping-pace
[7] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2888876-frontier-communications-headed-for-financial-disaster
[8] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2633375-frontier-communications-ftr-ceo-maggie-wilderotter-q3-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?part=single
[9] http://www.leichtmanresearch.com/press/051515release.html
[10] http://www.wvgazettemail.com/article/20141020/GZ01/141029992
[11] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[12] http://stopthecap.com/2015/05/05/fla-utility-says-negotiations-with-verizon-make-it-clear-verizon-will-exit-the-wireline-business-within-10-years/
[13] http://money.cnn.com/2013/07/22/technology/verizon-wireless-sandy/
[14] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/MatterManagement/CaseMaster.aspx?Mattercaseno=13-C-0197
[15] http://www.cwa-union.org/news/entry/cwa_calls_for_regulators_to_investigate_verizons_refusal_to_invest_in_landl
[16] http://newnetworks.com/publicnn.pdf/
[17] http://www1.nyc.gov/office-of-the-mayor/news/415-15/de-blasio-administration-releases-audit-report-verizon-s-citywide-fios-implementation
[18] http://arstechnica.com/business/2015/10/verizon-tries-to-avoid-building-more-fiber-by-re-defining-the-word-pass/
[19] http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/27/nyregion/new-york-city-and-verizon-battle-over-fios-service.html?_r=0
[20] http://www.nyc.gov/html/doitt/downloads/pdf/verizon-audit.pdf
[21] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={0A5EAC88-6AB7-4F79-862C-B6C6B6D2E4ED}
[22] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId=%7BC60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54%7D
[23] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
[24] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={FCB40F67-B91F-4F65-8CCD-66D8C22AF6B1}
[25] http://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-most-hated-cable-company-in-america-is-2015-06-02
[26] https://community.myhughesnet.com/hughesnet?topic_list%5Bsettings%5D%5Btype%5D=problem
[27] http://www.verizon.com/home/highspeedinternet/
[28] http://www.verizonwireless.com/b2c/lte-internet-installed/
[29] http://www.consumerreports.org//cro/magazine/2014/05/how-to-save-money-on-triple-play-cable-services/index.htm
[30] http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Is_Cable_Television_Natural_Monopoly.pdf (p.255)
[31] https://fiber.storage.googleapis.com/legal/googlefibercitychecklist2-24-14.pdf
[32] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report

Stop the Cap Files Opposition to Charter-TWC-Bright House Merger With FCC



Applications of Charter Communications, Inc., Time
Warner Cable Inc., and Advance/Newhouse
Partnership for Consent to the Transfer of                        MB Docket No. 15-149

Control of Cable Television Relay Service


Statement of Opposition

(Click here to download a copy in PDF format.)

October 10, 2015

Stop the Cap! is a Rochester, N.Y.-based consumer group founded in 2008 to fight against the introduction of artificial limits on broadband usage (usage caps, consumption billing, speed throttling) and to promote better broadband speeds and service for consumers. Our group does not solicit or accept funding from lobbyists, companies, or others affiliated with the telecommunications industry. We are entirely supported by individual donors who share our views.


It is our view that the application of Charter Communications to effectively acquire Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks offers no compelling public interest benefit and is therefore not in the public interest.

Our organization represents the interests of consumers and customers who face ever-growing broadband and television bills. Since its founding in 2008, we have witnessed a gap between the promised benefits of telecom mergers and what actually materializes for customers. Our conclusion is that consumers rarely benefit from these transactions. Prices continue to rise, customer service does not significantly improve, competition suffers, and conditions imposed by regulators to protect consumers or improve service are either not meaningfully met, expire too soon, or are too limited to be useful.

Charter’s claimed public interest benefits from its acquisitions are woefully inadequate and will, in fact, harm consumers if this merger is permitted.

The proposal asks the Commission to approve Charter’s acquisition of not one, but two established cable providers, one considerably larger than Charter itself:

  • Time Warner Cable, the second largest U.S. cable operator with more than 11 million residential and business customers[1];
  • Bright House Networks, the sixth largest U.S. cable operator with approximately 2.5 million customers.[2]

Charter Communications is about half the size of Time Warner Cable.[3]

Charter's broadband customer satisfaction scores are nothing to write home about.

Charter’s broadband customer satisfaction scores are nothing to write home about. Time Warner is no prize either, especially in areas where Maxx upgrades are not yet available.

In the 2015 J.D. Power U.S. Residential Television Service Provider Satisfaction Study, Charter rated poor — second to last place behind five other providers in the North West region, fourth from last behind six others in the South region, and third from last behind five other providers in the West. In fact, at no time did Charter rank anything higher than “about average” for television, broadband, and telephone service and often scored worse.[4]

This is a critical measurement of how Charter is likely to perform in areas currently served by Time Warner Cable and Bright House, should the merger be approved.

“The ability to provide a high-quality experience with all wireline services is paramount, as performance and reliability is the most critical driver of overall satisfaction,” said Kirk Parsons, senior director and technology, media & telecom practice leader at J.D. Power. “The fact that households continue to choose to upgrade their wireline connection to digital service is a testament to its improved performance and benefits, such as higher quality video and faster Internet speeds.”

FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler has publicly stated his four preferences for telecommunications policies that promote competition and foster enhanced service.[5]

  1. “First, where competition exists, the Commission will protect it,” Wheeler said. “Our effort opposing shrinking the number of nationwide wireless providers from four to three is an example. As applied to fixed networks, the Commission’s Order on tech transition experiments similarly starts with the belief that changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.”
  2. “Communications policy has always agreed on one important concept: the exercise of uncontrolled last-mile power is not in the public interest,” Wheeler said. “This has not changed as a result of new technology. When network operators have unrestrained last-mile power, public policy can step in to protect consumers and innovators. When cable companies, for instance, were accused of using their control over the last-mile distribution of video programing to harm competition by keeping content from others, Congress stopped that practice in the 1992 Cable Act. There are two important lessons from this: First, last-mile power cannot be a lever for gaining an unfair advantage. Second, rules of the road can provide guidance to all players and, by restraining future actions that would harm the public interest, incent more investment and more innovation.”
  3. “Where meaningful competition is not available, the Commission will work to create it. For instance, our efforts to expand the amount of unlicensed spectrum create alternative competitive pathways. And we understand the petitions from two communities asking us to pre-empt state laws against citizen-driven broadband expansion to be in the same category, which is why we are looking at that question so closely.”
  4. “Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband. One thing we already know is the fact that something works in New York City doesn’t mean it works in rural South Dakota. We cannot allow rural America to be behind the broadband curve. Our universal service efforts are focused on bringing better broadband to rural America by whomever steps up to the challenge—not the highest speeds all at once, but steadily to prevent the creation of a new digital divide.”

We will return to these four themes in our statement to see if Charter’s application helps or hinders these priorities. It is our contention Charter’s application does not meaningfully advance the stated goals of the Chairman or the Commission. In fact, Charter’s proposal impedes achievement of some of these goals significantly.

In our presentation, we will regularly refer to Charter’s existing product suite, usually referred to as “Charter Spectrum.” We will also refer to two different types of service from Time Warner Cable.



On January 30, 2014, Time Warner Cable announced its new TWC Maxx initiative that substantially improved broadband speeds for customers without a corresponding rate increase. The upgrade also introduced a new class of cable equipment for video customers offering an enhanced viewing experience, increased plant/service reliability, improved customer support – including more options for in-home service calls, and retained and improved existing budget-priced broadband tiers for fixed and low-income customers.[6]

We will therefore refer to both Time Warner Cable Maxx-upgraded service areas defined above and “legacy service areas” that are currently awaiting Maxx upgrades and now offer slower top Internet speeds ranging from 50-100Mbps.

It is our contention that Charter’s proposal to bring improved broadband speeds, better set-top boxes, faster upgrades, and a three-year commitment to voluntarily adhere to Net Neutrality/Open Internet policies and not impose usage caps on residential broadband service offers little because Time Warner Cable Maxx already offers consumers a more compelling offer on an upgrade timeline nearly equivalent to that proposed by Charter Communications.

Time Warner Cable has also never been credibly accused of violating Net Neutrality principles, is unlikely to do so in the future, and has repeatedly insisted it will not impose compulsory usage caps on its customers. We also argue Charter Communications’ heavy indebtedness as a result of this transaction will likely pose a challenge to complete the company’s promised upgrade plan and its ongoing operations.

In short, consumers are much better off remaining Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers as opposed to Charter Communications customers.

Should the FCC ultimately disagree with our contention, we urge you to impose our ideas for strong and meaningful conditions to protect consumers. Without this, we fear the executives of both companies and their shareholders will be the only ones to actually benefit from this transaction. Consumers will be left with little more than a higher bill.


charter spectrum logoCharter Communications’ proposition to the Commission and customers is to deliver a more compelling product suite offering faster Internet speeds, better set-top equipment, and a three-year commitment to adhere to the Commission’s Open Internet principles and not impose usage caps or modem rental fees on customers.

While on the surface these commitments may seem laudable, when they are closely examined it quickly becomes apparent they offer little to Time Warner Cable customers, particularly the approximately 45% of which will have been upgraded to “Maxx” service by the end of 2015.[7]

Charter customers can generally choose from two tiers of Internet service, according to Charter’s website[8]:

We offer two different Charter Internet connection packages:

Plus – up to 30Mbps Download and 4Mbps upload

Ultra – up to 100Mbps Download and 5Mbps Upload

With Charter Internet Ultra, network speeds can reach up to 100 Megabits per second (Mbps). Your exact speed will depend on the service level to which you subscribe.

Charter charges new customers an introductory monthly price ranging from $29.99 (when Internet service is bundled with video/phone service) to $39.99 (Internet-only service) for its 60Mbps Standard broadband tier.[9] It is this promotional rate Charter is proposing to extend to Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers. But Charter does not commit to a specific time frame under which this promotional rate will apply to these customers. According to Charter’s disclaimer, the promotional rate expires after one year, after which the rate resets to a “standard rate,” currently $59.99 a month.[10]

speed-plan-chart-2014In contrast, Time Warner Cable offers a much larger variety of Internet tiers, starting at $14.99 a month and generally increasing in $10 increments, based on offered speed.[11] In legacy service areas, Time Warner Cable’s pricing can be more compelling, even with the slower Internet speeds, because income-challenged consumers may feel a need to buy service based on price, not performance. Charter all but eliminates these lower-cost options, except in limited circumstances where a customer manages to meet onerous requirements to qualify for a low-income broadband discount plan.

Achieving faster Internet speeds is another priority for Chairman Wheeler. At a speech last fall at 1776, the Chairman said, “a 25Mbps connection is fast becoming ‘table stakes’ in 21st century communications.”[12]

Both Time Warner Cable and Charter Communications will deliver twice or more that minimum speed as their Standard tier offering. Time Warner already achieves this goal in their Maxx service areas, where 50Mbps is the new Standard speed tier. Charter proposes to take more than two years to upgrade Time Warner Cable customers to an incrementally faster 60Mbps speed tier. Additionally, Time Warner Cable Maxx customers are assured they can further upgrade that speed in increments up to 300Mbps. Charter, in contrast, offers most customers a maximum of 100Mbps.[13]

The most important question before the Commission is which cable operator is better positioned to deliver the services customers want and/or need. We argue Time Warner Cable and Bright House, not Charter Communications, are both in a stronger position to deliver.

Since the termination of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger, Time Warner Cable has responsibly invested in their infrastructure without assuming an irresponsible amount of debt. Bright House Networks’ owners have taken the company private, but their ongoing investments in a robust Wi-Fi platform, their high consumer satisfaction scores, and their investments in ongoing upgrades to meet challenges of competitors like Verizon FiOS suggest the company is in healthy financial shape.

Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus reported significant progress in their first quarter 2015 report to shareholders and customers, despite the distraction of the Comcast merger[14]:

Over the past 16 months, we’ve made significant investments to improve our customers’ experience:

  • Investing more than $5.2 billion to, among other things, improve the reliability of our network and upgrade customer premise equipment – including set-top boxes and cable modems – with the latest technologies and expand its network to additional residences, commercial buildings and cell towers;
  • Launching TWC Maxx, which features greater reliability, all-digital video, advanced TV services, standard tier of Internet speeds at 50 Mbps, and higher tiers of service up to 300 Mbps. New York, Los Angeles and Austin are complete; Dallas, San Antonio and Kansas City are underway; Charlotte, Raleigh and Hawaii are slated for later this year; and San Diego is expected to be done in early 2016;
  • Introducing Enhanced DVR, a six-tuner set-top box that allows customers to record up to six shows simultaneously and store up to 150 hours of HD content;
  • Increasing the number of Cable Wi-Fi hotspots available to our customers to 400,000;
  • Rolling out our cloud-based video guide to 8 million set-top boxes to date. The guide also makes it easier to browse our On Demand library, which now sits at 30,000 free and paid titles and continues to grow;
  • Expanding our industry-leading TWC TV app – which allows customers to watch live TV and On Demand content and control and program their DVR from inside and outside the home. TWC TV is now available on Xbox One, Xbox 360, Amazon Kindle Fire HD and HDX tablets, Android and IOS phones and tablets, Fan TV, PCs, Samsung TV and Roku;

Serving customers on their schedules rather than ours. We expanded one-hour appointment windows across the company and in Q1 met that window 97 percent of the time. We continue to add nighttime and weekend appointments.



Since that report, Time Warner Cable has announced new Maxx service upgrade areas – Greensboro and Wilmington, N.C. Marcus has indicated additional cities will receive upgrades in 2016.[15]

On the January 29, 2015 quarterly results conference call with investors, Marcus indicated Maxx upgrades delivered tangible benefits to the company, including increased customer satisfaction, higher network reliability, and a stronger product line.[16] Based on those factors, it would be logical to assume Time Warner Cable would continue its upgrade project, and indeed Marcus confirmed this in his remarks:

“Our aim is to have 75% of our footprint enabled with Maxx […] by the end of [2016], and my guess is we’re continuing to roll it out beyond that,” said Marcus. “So the only question is prioritization, and obviously as we think about where to go first, competitive dynamics are a factor. So that includes Google, although it’s not explosively dictated by where Google decides to go. In fact I think we announced the Carolinas before Google did their announcement this week. So competitors are certainly relevant obviously.

At the rate Time Warner Cable has been rolling out Maxx upgrades, which were first announced on January 30, 2014[17], with 45% of its service area upgraded within 23 months, it is likely the company would complete its Maxx upgrade to all of its service areas within the next 24-30 months. Notably, the staff of the New York Department of Public Service found, while investigating this deal, “there is no indication that Petitioner’s plan for converting to all-digital in New York is any different from Time Warner’s existing plan.”[18]

Charter’s upgrade proposal is, in fact, generally inferior to what Time Warner Cable is accomplishing on its own. We strongly recommend the Commission carefully consider whether Charter’s proposal is as truly compelling as they claim.

twc maxxWe are also very concerned about Charter’s plans to deliver affordable Internet access. Chairman Wheeler expressed his concerns about the digital divide in broadband. The cost of access is perhaps the most important factor for getting broadband service in income-challenged households. If Charter’s price is too high, many will go without service.

Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet service – a very important offer for low income residents and senior citizens who are unable to afford the nearly $60 regular price both companies charge for their 50 or 60Mbps tiers. Time Warner Cable offers this $14.99 tier without preconditions, restricted qualifiers, contracts, or limits on what types of services can be bundled with it. Any consumer can buy the service and bundle it with Time Warner Cable telephone service for an additional $10 a month, which offers a nationwide local calling area, as well as free calls to the European Union, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and several Asian nations.

The loss of a $25 plan that includes basic Internet access and a bundled, 911-capable telephone line would be devastating to low-income households and senior citizens. During the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger hearings in New York, no topic elicited as much interest as Internet affordability and the onerous restrictions cable operators place on their income-qualified budget Internet plans.[19] The same concerns exist today with Charter’s application. Time Warner Cable clearly offers a superior product line for these customers, including two other Internet service tiers offering stepped up Internet speeds in $10 increments. These options would be unavailable from Charter.

Charter’s proposed solution to serve low-income customers is adoption of Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, which offers restricted access to $9.95/month Internet service for those who qualify.

connect2competeStop the Cap! investigated Bright House Networks’ existing offer in a report to our readers in June 2015, and we urge the Commission to look much more closely at the specific conditions Bright House customers have had to endure to qualify to subscribe[20]:

1) You must have at least one child qualified for the National School Lunch Program. They need not be enrolled now.

2) You cannot have been a Bright House broadband customer during the last three months. If you are a current customer, you must first cancel and go without Internet service for 90 days (or call the phone company and hope to get a month-to-month DSL plan in the interim.)

3) If you have an overdue bill older than 12 months, you are not eligible until you pay that bill in full.

4) Bright House does not enroll customers in discounted Internet programs year-round. From a Bright House representative:

“We do participate in this particular program, however, it is only around September that we participate in it. This is a seasonal offer that we have which can only be requested from the middle of August to the middle of September, which is when most start up with school again for the year.”

5) Bright House does not take orders for the Low-Income Internet plan over the Internet. You have to enroll by phone: (205) 591-6880.

Families fall into poverty every day of the year, and poverty-stricken families move from one school district to another every day of the year. So it’s horribly unfair to tell them they’d qualify for this program if only they had fallen into poverty sometime between the middle of August and the middle of September.

It has been our experience covering service providers across all 50 states that most design these low-cost Internet access programs with revenue protection first in mind. Charter Communications is no different. As with Comcast, Connect2Compete is only available to families with school age children. Applicants face an intrusive, complicated, and time-restricted enrollment process that threatens to dampen and discourage participation.

Charter’s claimed interest to meet the needs of low-income customers might be more honorable if not for their insistence otherwise-qualified existing customers cannot downgrade their regular price broadband plan to Connect2Compete unless they voluntarily go without Internet access for three months.

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise "No Data Caps."

Time Warner Cable goes out of its way to advertise “No Data Caps.”

We strongly recommend Charter Communications be compelled to continue Time Warner’s $14.99 Internet plan, but at speeds no less than 25Mbps, the minimum definition of entry-level broadband by the FCC. We also recommend Charter be required to further discount this plan to $9.95 a month for qualified customers who meet a simple income test the Commission can define and establish. These discount programs should not just be available to families with school-age children. Everyone needs affordable Internet access, whether you are single and looking for your first job or a fixed income senior citizen.

All restrictions for existing customers or those with an outstanding balance must be prohibited and sign-ups must be accepted 365 days a year with re-qualification occurring not more than once annually.

Charter’s broadband offer for lower-income Americans is inadequate, and so is their plan for customers who need enhanced service.

Time Warner Cable Maxx delivers a more compelling offer for consumers and small businesses that need much faster Internet access. Charter’s upgrade will offer customers two choices: 60 or 100Mbps service. Time Warner Cable Maxx offers considerably more[21]:

chartersucksCharter Communications’ commitment to not impose “usage caps” for three years is inadequate. As we have learned from Comcast, the industry definition of a “usage cap” differs widely from the definition understood by most consumers.

Charter’s commitment must be expanded to prohibit all forms of usage pricing, such as those similar to what Comcast is market testing in several of its service areas.[22] In these markets, Comcast has established an arbitrary usage allowance and charges punitive overlimit fees to customers that exceed it. Comcast has repeatedly denied it has “usage caps” because its so-called ‘data plans’ allow customers to voluntarily exceed their usage allowance, at a cost. Without a commitment Charter will also not impose usage-based pricing, its commitment to regulators not to impose “usage caps” is largely meaningless.

More concerning, Charter Communications has a history of capping their customers’ usage. Less than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation.[23] The FCC itself is investigating this and other related issues as part of this proceeding.[24]

internet limitConsumers have shown no interest in usage-based pricing or usage-capped wired Internet and strongly prefer unlimited access. One only need look at Time Warner Cable’s own results when offering an optional discounted Internet plan for customers volunteering to limit their usage.

Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus noted customers strongly want to keep their unlimited use plans, even if they cost more. Speaking at the Deutsche Bank Media, Internet, and Telecom Conference, Marcus noted:

“If you take the 30GB a month and compare it to what median usage is, let’s say high 20s — 27GB a month, that would suggest a whole lot of customers would do well by taking the 30GB service,” Marcus said. “Notwithstanding that, very few customers — in the thousands — have taken the usage based tiers and I think that speaks to the value they place on unlimited — not bad because we plan to continue to offer unlimited for as far out as we can possibly see.”[25]

Marcus has repeatedly made it clear compulsory usage caps are off the table at Time Warner Cable – a lesson they learned after customers pushed back and forced them to shelve a usage cap experiment planned for Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and Austin, San Antonio, and Beaumont, Tex. in April 2009[26]. The company has never raised the possibility of compulsory usage limits or usage-based billing again.

“We have no intention of abandoning an unlimited product we think that something that customers value and are willing to pay for,” said Time Warner Cable CEO Robert Marcus. “The way we’ve approached usage-based pricing is to offer it as an option for customers who prefer to pay less because they tend to use less. And we’ve made those available at 5 gigabytes per month and 30 gigabytes per month levels.[27]

A deal with Charter would mean Time Warner Cable's bonds would be downgraded to junk status.

A deal with Charter would mean Time Warner Cable’s bonds would be downgraded to junk status.

Time Warner Cable again offers a superior choice for Americans, and it is an important one. Chairman Wheeler said “last-mile power cannot be a lever for gaining an unfair advantage.” With many consumers having no practical choice for an alternative broadband provider, allowing Charter to impose usage limits or forcing customers into even higher-priced usage billing plans would deliver a major unfair advantage into the hands of the cable operator, always concerned with protecting its cable television package from emerging online video competition.

In fact, almost all of Charter’s so-called customer-friendly commitments and policies have a very unfriendly expiration date of just three years, which should be unacceptable to the Commission. There is no reason Charter cannot extend its commitments to not charge modem fees, adhere to the basic principles of Net Neutrality, and not impose usage caps or other forms of usage billing permanently. Without such a commitment, consumers could soon pay much higher prices for broadband service, and without robust competition unlikely to develop over the next three years, there will be every incentive for Charter to further boost earnings by imposing modem fees and usage pricing on its customers.

One of the strongest incentives for rate increases is the level of debt Charter Communications will assume in this transaction. The Department of Public Service staff in New York concluded New Charter’s debt and lowered credit rating “represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction.”[28]

Debt servicing costs and more expensive credit are both deterrents to investment and are likely to limit the scope of Charter’s ongoing system upgrades and maintenance. Charter is a much smaller cable operator than Time Warner Cable, and is itself still in the process of repairing and upgrading its own cable systems and those it acquired in earlier acquisition deals. Time Warner Cable, in contrast, is in a much stronger financial position to carry out its commitments associated with the Maxx upgrade program.

Charter’s general offer to consider expanding service into unserved areas is vague, or has been redacted. We remind the Commission the past history of winning expansion commitments from cable operators who rely on Return On Investment (ROI) formulas to determine which homes and businesses they will serve have met with limited success.

The pervasive problem of rural broadband availability is unlikely to be resolved substantially by this transaction without the strongest buildout requirements. But even that is unlikely to be of much help for large areas outside of existing video franchise areas.

Compelling Charter Communications to adopt universal service obligations within all existing Time Warner Cable and Bright House franchise areas may be a good start. Under such a requirement, any consumer or business that wants cable service and lives within the geographic boundaries of an existing franchise area would receive it upon request without construction fees, surcharges, or other passed-along fees to reach that customer, regardless of their distance from the existing cable plant or ROI formula. The largest impact of this would be to extend cable service into business parks and commercial buildings, which often lack cable service, but many suburban and exurban residential customers would also benefit. This also would achieve the Chairman’s goal to facilitate rural broadband where incumbents have generally failed to provide the service.

consumer reportsThe Commission must carefully consider Charter’s financial capacity to meet these obligations as well. No commitment is worth much if a company ultimately fails to deliver on it.

An overburdened cable operator is also unlikely to make substantial investments in improving customer service, and that makes the risk of depending on Charter Communications to improve Time Warner Cable’s already poor customer service rating doubtful. It also risks the much higher scores Bright House customers have given to that company for its superior customer service.

Competition is the biggest incentive to improve customer service and responsiveness, and that is unlikely to deliver much pressure on cable companies like Charter over the next few years. In fact, we argue customer service is likely to deteriorate in the short term because of the disruptiveness of any ownership change and eventual billing system integration.

Consumer Reports already rates Time Warner and Charter’s Internet Service poorly[29]:

  • Charter: 63 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Good Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support
  • Time Warner Cable: 57 (Reader Score), Poor Value, Fair Reliability, Fair Speed, Mediocre Phone/Online Support, Fair In-Home Support

Charter Communications’ proposed benefits to Time Warner Cable and Bright House cable television customers are also weak and not compelling. Both Time Warner Cable and Charter proposed to move to all-digital cable television to free up bandwidth to offer improved broadband before the merger deal was announced. Bright House was also headed in the same direction.

badbillWhile consumers clamor for smaller, less-costly cable television packages, Charter Communications’ CEO Thomas Rutledge is credited for inventing the “triple play” concept of convincing customers to package more services – broadband, television and telephone — together in return for a discount. Reuters cited his preference for “simplified pricing,”[30] which is why Charter offers most customers only two options for broadband service and one giant television package dubbed Spectrum TV containing more than 200 channels.[31]

Unfortunately, any benefits from an all-digital television package are likely to be diluted when customers get the bill. Currently, many Time Warner Cable customers watch analog channels on television sets around the home without the need to rent a costly set top box. Any transition to digital television will require the rental of a set top box or purchase of a third-party device to view cable television programming. These can represent costly add-ons for an already high cable bill.

With approximately 99 percent of customers renting their set-top box directly from their pay-tv provider, the set-top box rental market may be worth more than $19.5 billion per year, with the average American household spending more than $231 per year on set-top box rental fees, according to findings from Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal’s (D-Conn.) query of the top-ten pay-tv multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs).[32]

Passed by Congress in December, the STELA Reauthorization Act of 2014 repealed the set-top box integration ban, which enabled consumers to access technology that allowed use of a set-top box other than one leased from their cable company. Without the integration ban, by the end of this year, cable companies will no longer be required to make their services compatible with outside set-top boxes, like TiVo for example, bought directly by consumers in the retail marketplace.

American cable subscribers spend, on average, $89.16 a year renting a single set-top box. The average set-top box rental fee for each company was used to calculate an overall set-top box rental cost average across companies: $7.43 a month, or $89.16 per year. Considering many homes rent a DVR box to make and view recordings and maintain less-capable boxes on other televisions, the total cost adds up quickly. The average household spends $231.82 a year on set-top box rental fees, according to Sens. Markey and Blumenthal.

Charter proposes to introduce a new generation of set top boxes but as far as we know, has not disclosed the monthly cost of these IP-capable boxes to subscribers. We do note the current generation of digital set-top boxes leased by Charter cost customers $6.99 a month each, slightly less than the national average.[33] We anticipate this fee may rise after the introduction of more advanced equipment. We note Charter also charges its television customers in a city like St. Louis an extra $6.05 a month for the “Broadcast TV Service Charge” and $4.99 a month for “Whole House Wire Maintenance.”[34]

Other points the Commission should consider in reviewing this transaction:

  1. While it is true Charter and Time Warner don’t compete for the same customers, it is inaccurate to suggest the transaction will not alter competition. Cable industry consolidation is underway, in part, to help larger combined operators secure better volume discounts for increasingly expensive video programming.AT&T’s primary motivation to acquire satellite provider DirecTV was to secure better prices for video programming, both for DirecTV customers but more importantly for its own, much smaller, U-verse TV operation.[35]The cost barrier for new, directly competing entrants into the cable television business is well-recognized, especially by smaller independent cable television providers that lack the ability to secure similar volume discounts for themselves. The American Cable Association, representing small operators, warned the FCC “existing providers of both broadband and MVPD services and new entrants will be deterred from expanding their broadband networks or otherwise undertaking new builds” as a result of increasing programming costs.[36]As a result, it is unlikely a new provider will be able to develop a sustainable business model that includes cable television while paying wholesale programming costs that are dramatically higher than what combined companies like New Charter will pay.
  2. The Commission must insist that Time Warner Cable customers in legacy service areas be treated the same as those already upgraded to Maxx service. If the deal is approved, Charter must be compelled to commit to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade initiative across the entire footprint of Time Warner Cable’s former service areas, to be completed within 30 months. We also agree with the staff recommendation of the N.Y. Department of Public Service that Charter also be compelled to upgrade its facilities to support gigabit broadband, but this should be extended to include all of its service areas, not just the largest cities.This does not pose a significant challenge to cable operators. With the upcoming introduction of DOCSIS 3.1 technology, operators even smaller than Charter will support 1Gbps broadband speeds as they drop analog television signals. Suddenlink[37], MidContinent[38], Cox[39], and Mediacom[40] already have gigabit deployment plans underway.
  3. The Commission must establish and enforce meaningful enforcement mechanisms should Charter fail to achieve its commitments as part of this transaction. Cable consolidation has never significantly benefited consumers. Charter is not guaranteeing Time Warner Cable or Bright House customers will receive a lower bill as a result of this merger. Nor is it committing to pass along the lower prices it will achieve through negotiations for wholesale video programming volume discounts. Cable rates, especially for broadband, will continue to increase. Without meaningful competition, there is no incentive to give consumers a better deal or better service.That is why if the Commission feels it must approve this transaction, the conditions that accompany it to achieve a true public interest benefit must be meaningful, directly relevant to the majority of customers, and ongoing.

Cable operators know once they secure a franchise or become the incumbent provider, no other cable company will negotiate with city officials to take over that franchise if the current provider’s application is denied during renewal. Once Charter (or any other cable company) establishes a presence, there is little or no chance a community will be able to get rid of that provider if it fails to perform. That is why any franchise transfer that comes from an acquisition or merger must be treated with the upmost seriousness. Customers will likely live with the decision the Commission makes for the next 10-20 years or more.

just_say_noAs the Commission must realize, this transaction does not just involve entertainment. Recently, the Obama Administration declared broadband Internet access a “core utility.”[41]

“Broadband has steadily shifted from an optional amenity to a core utility for households, businesses and community institutions,” according to a report from the administration’s Broadband Opportunity Council. “Today, broadband is taking its place alongside water, sewer and electricity as essential infrastructure for communities.”

Our group strongly believes regulators should not take a risk on Charter’s less-then-compelling offer when Time Warner Cable and Bright House have both demonstrated a better financial position. Time Warner has a proven track record of delivering on its commitments to improve service with its Maxx upgrade project. Time Warner Cable has superior options for low-income consumers, offers more broadband options and faster speeds for entrepreneurs in the digital/information economy, and has committed to providing unlimited Internet access – a critical prerequisite for consumers choosing to drop cable television’s one-size-fits-all bloated video package and watch only the shows they want to see and pay for online.

At the start of our presentation, we referred to the Chairman’s four stated goals for improving broadband and competition. At this point, it should be obvious that shrinking the number of companies providing service has not delivered significant service improvements. In fact, for many customers, Charter’s offer is worse.

Allowing further marketplace consolidation widens the gap for cable television programming costs, which could deter new competitors from entering the market. Small providers pay dramatically higher programming costs while the largest receive substantial volume discounts. That is contrary to the Chairman’s goal of protecting last-mile competition.

Online video has created the “cord-cutting” effect, allowing consumers to shop for better video values beyond the local cable company. Without a permanent ban on usage caps and usage pricing, providers like Charter (that maintained usage caps until a few months before this application was filed) have a strong incentive to resume them after the deal’s token three-year commitment expires. Without also closing the obvious loophole of “usage pricing,” nothing precludes Charter from imposing usage-based pricing on consumers immediately after the deal is approved.

Promoting expanded rural broadband, another priority of the Commission, does little if the incumbent providers refuse to offer it. We see nothing in Charter’s public application that commits them to extending service to specific areas Time Warner Cable or Bright House do not service today. In fact, before this application was filed, Charter’s willingness to provide service to unserved areas in their own existing franchise areas was not always evident.[42] It is hard to believe Charter will voluntarily disregard their own Return On Investment formula to provide the service many rural customers eagerly hope might be forthcoming if the provider was somebody other than Time Warner Cable or Bright House.

We urge the FCC to deny Charter’s application. If it sees fit to make a different choice, we strongly recommend you demand Charter meet, at the minimum, the same level of service Time Warner Cable Maxx provides across the entire existing Time Warner franchise area, achieve the same customer service standard well-regarded Bright House manages for its customers, and a better deal for consumers that continue to face spiraling cable bills, few competitive choices, and no new alternatives on the horizon.

  • [1] http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2014/02/13/the-comcast-time-warner-deal-by-the-numbers/?_r=0
  • [2] https://brighthouse.com/about/about-us/about-us.html
  • [3] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/about-charter
  • [4] http://www.jdpower.com/press-releases/2015-us-residential-television-internet-telephone-service-provider-satisfaction
  • [5] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/09/most-of-the-us-has-no-broadband-competition-at-25mbps-fcc-chair-says/
  • [6] http://www.theverge.com/2014/1/31/5365816/time-warner-cable-maxx-plans-broadband-cable-improvements-in-nyc-la
  • [7] http://www.fiercecable.com/story/twc-promises-maxx-reach-45-customers-end-year-tivo-support-apples-airplay/2015-07-14
  • [8] https://www.myaccount.charter.com/customers/support.aspx?supportarticleid=59
  • [9] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/packages
  • [10] http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/psc-staff-recommend-charter-twc-15-m-0388.pdf
  • [11] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/plans-packages/internet/internet-service-plans.html?iid=internet-lob:1:1:compareplans
  • [12] http://arstechnica.com/business/2014/09/most-of-the-us-has-no-broadband-competition-at-25mbps-fcc-chair-says/
  • [13] https://www.myaccount.charter.com/customers/support.aspx?supportarticleid=59#speedoptions
  • [14] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/04/twc-gains-momentum-with-best-ever-subscriber-growth-customer-enhancements/
  • [15] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2015/07/twc-maxx-expands-rollout-in-2015/
  • [16] http://seekingalpha.com/article/2864536-time-warner-cables-twc-ceo-rob-marcus-on-q4-2014-results-earnings-call-transcript?
  • [17] http://www.twcableuntangled.com/2014/01/get-the-details-on-twcs-plan-to-transform-ctv-internet-experience/
  • [18] http://stopthecap.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/psc-staff-recommend-charter-twc-15-m-0388.pdf
  • [19] See e.g., Case 14-M-0183, Joint Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable, Inc. for Approval of a Transfer of Control of Subsidiaries and Franchises, Information Forum/Public Statement Hearing (dated June 19, 2014) Tr. 29-33.
  • [20] http://stopthecap.com/2015/06/25/bright-houses-mysterious-internet-discount-program-charter-wants-to-adopt-nationwide
  • [21] http://www.timewarnercable.com/en/enjoy/better-twc/internet.html
  • [22] http://customer.xfinity.com/help-and-support/internet/data-usage-trials/
  • [23] http://stopthecap.com/2015/09/23/fcc-demands-details-about-charters-suddenly-retired-usage-caps/
  • [24] https://www.fcc.gov/document/request-information-sent-charter-communications-inc-0
  • [25] http://stopthecap.com/2014/03/13/time-warner-cable-admits-usage-based-pricing-is-a-big-failure-only-thousands-enrolled/
  • [26] http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/story?id=7368388
  • [27] http://stopthecap.com/2014/10/30/time-warner-cable-recommits-mandatory-usage-caps-long-company-remains-independent/
  • [28] http://documents.dps.ny.gov/public/Common/ViewDoc.aspx?DocRefId={C60985CC-BEE8-43A7-84E8-5A4B4D8E0F54} (p.39)
  • [29] http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/electronics-computers/computers-internet/telecom-services/internet-service-ratings/ratings-overview.htm
  • [30] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/01/30/us-charter-timewarnercable-rutledge-anal-idUSBREA0T01D20140130
  • [31] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/tv#/channel-lineup
  • [32] http://www.markey.senate.gov/news/press-releases/markey-blumenthal-decry-lack-of-choice-competition-in-pay-tv-video-box-marketplace
  • [33] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/rate-card-info (city of St. Louis, Mo.)
  • [34] https://www.charter.com/browse/content/rate-card-info (city of St. Louis, Mo.)
  • [35] http://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2015/07/24/fcc-approves-ts-acquisition-directv/30626421/
  • [36] http://www.americancable.org/node/5229
  • [37] http://www.multichannel.com/news/technology/suddenlink-boots-1-gig-broadband/392087
  • [38] https://www.midco.com/PressRoom/2014/midcontinent-bringing-gigabit-internet-access-to-the-northern-plains/
  • [39] http://www.multichannel.com/news/distribution/cox-plots-docsis-31-plans/393996
  • [40] http://www.multichannel.com/news/cable-operators/mediacom-sets-residential-1-gig-rollout/393585
  • [41] http://thehill.com/policy/technology/254431-obama-administration-declares-broadband-core-utility-in-report
  • [42] http://www.dslreports.com/forum/r28864058-Why-won-t-Charter-come-another-1-2-mile-for-more-customers

Comcast Dragged Into Upgrade for Santa Cruz After Public Broadband Initiative Announced

Before and after competition

Before and after competition

The best way to guarantee service upgrades from Comcast is to threaten to launch your own competing service provider, which is precisely what worked for the community of Santa Cruz, Calif., where Comcast suddenly found the resources to upgrade the local cable system to support speeds faster than 25Mbps.

For more than two years, customers and local governments across Santa Cruz County have been begging Comcast to upgrade the cable system that would have been state-of-the-art if it was still 1997. Customers could not exceed speeds of 25-28Mbps, but Comcast continued advertising its “Performance” tier (50Mbps), Blast! (105Mbps) and even Extreme option (150Mbps), collecting dozens of extra dollars a month from customers while their broadband speeds maxed out below 30Mbps.

The cable system is so antiquated, it could not officially support consistent service above 25Mbps, and many locals complain their speeds were slower than that.

“The most popular speed in this county is 16/2Mbps, which is the fastest one Comcast will actually give you what you paid for,” said Stop the Cap! reader Jim, who lives in Santa Cruz. “It’s so bad, people are actually envious of Charter, which services customers to the south.”

comcastOokla’s Net Speed Index rated the community of 62,000 447th fastest out of 505 California broadband-enabled cities.

Comcast’s performance was so bad, a frustrated employee began leaking internal company documents exposing the fact the cable system could not deliver speeds above 29Mbps, despite marketing and advertising campaigns selling customers more expensive, faster broadband local employees knew it could not deliver.

“We’ve been complaining to the company in Philadelphia for years, asking them to stop promising something they weren’t delivering,” a Comcast  technician told GoodTimes, a community newspaper. “But they ignored us.”

When customers complained, they were told their equipment was at fault or their cable modems needed to be replaced. In fact, the cable system’s local infrastructure needed to be upgraded, something Comcast has not done until recently.

santa cruzThis summer, the City of Santa Cruz joined forces with Cruzio, a California-based independent Internet Service Provider, to plan a new fiber to the home network within the city.

Under the terms of the partnership, the city will own the network, and Cruzio will act as the developer during engineering and construction and as the operator when the network is complete. Financing for the development of the network will be through city-backed municipal revenue bonds, repaid through the revenue from the sale of network services (and not by the taxpayers). The project will be financially self-sustaining and 100% of the profit generated will stay in the City of Santa Cruz.

Much of that money is likely to flow away from Comcast and into the community fiber provider, which will support speeds up to 1 gigabit. The announcement of impending competition inspired Comcast to upgrade its local cable infrastructure and the cable company suddenly announced service upgrades less than two months after the city announced their fiber project. In August, Comcast added 30 new channels, raised the speeds of two of its residential Xfinity Internet tiers at no additional cost to customers, and introduced four new tiers of Internet service for commercial business customers.

cruzio-logoThe Performance tier speed jumped overnight from 16/2Mbps to 75/5Mbps. Blast! speed increased from 25/4Mbps to 150/10Mbps.

For many local residents, it is too little, too late.

“Comcast can kiss me goodbye when Cruzio rolls into my neighborhood,” said Jim. “They ignored and overbilled us for years and the only time things changed is when competition was announced. Cruzio keeps their money here, Comcast sends it off to Philadelphia. If I have a problem, I know I’m going to get better service in person than dealing with Comcast’s customer service which has no idea where Santa Cruz even is.”

For Comcast customers who paid extra for Internet speeds they never received, company officials suggested they write a letter and ask for a refund, something Comcast will consider on a case-by-case basis.

“Comcast is a fundamentally deceitful company, at the leadership level,” responded local resident Charles Vaske. “They can not be trusted to stick to their word, and they certainly should not be trusted with infrastructure as vital as Internet access. A mere refund for this type of deceit is not appropriate, there should be severe penalties for such intentional crime.”

N.Y. Public Service Commission Staff Unimpressed With Charter-Time Warner Cable Merger Proposal

ny pscStaffers at the New York State Department of Public Service have recommended the Public Service Commission reject the merger of Charter Communications and Time Warner Cable unless significant concessions are made, largely because the alleged benefits are insufficient for New York cable customers.

Although cable operators are largely deregulated under federal law, state and local governments retain control over cable franchise agreements, which permit operators to sell cable television programming. To complete its merger, Charter Communications must win approval to transfer Time Warner Cable franchise agreements to the merged entity, dubbed “New Charter.” That gives state regulators leverage to win concessions and oversight mostly eliminated after the cable industry was deregulated by the federal government.

New York law requires cable operators seeking to join forces to prove the merger is in the public interest and that ratepayers will obtain a “net positive benefit” from the merger. In plain English, Charter must share the benefits of the merger with cable customers in New York, either from lower prices, better service, or both. Charter proposes to offer those benefits in the form of improved service:

  • Additional investments in all-digital systems in Time Warner’s service areas by completing digitization within 30 months of the close of the proposed transaction. This would include faster (60 megabits per second (Mbps) minimum) broadband speed offerings;
  • Merger-specific efficiencies, which would generate savings in a number of areas including combined purchasing power, overhead, product development, engineering, and information technology;
  • Merging Charter’s New York assets, now isolated from the rest of its service territories, to create efficiencies through reduced costs, improved customer service and additional service offerings;
  • Bringing overseas Time Warner jobs back to the United States and adding in-house positions;
  • Expanding to New York, within three years of the close of the proposed transaction, Bright House Networks’ low-income broadband option (Connect2Compete) which partners with schools to provide a $9.95 low-cost Internet service, discounts on Internet-capable devices, and innovative digital literacy training;
  • Promoting the deployment of advanced voice services and enhancing competition in the voice marketplace by creating a more robust competitor;
  • Pledging not to block or throttle Internet traffic or engage in paid prioritization, whether or not the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Open Internet Order is upheld. This commitment would continue for three years, without regard to the outcome of the ongoing litigation challenging federal reclassification.

charter twc bhThe Public Service Commission staff looked at the reported annual “synergy savings” of $800 million anticipated by New Charter from streamlining operations and winning enhanced volume discounts to determine the “net positive benefit” for New York consumers from the merger. Here is the formula the PSC used:

  • New York customers represent 10.879% of New Charter’s customer base — 2.6 million of New Charter’s 23,900,000 combined Charter and Time Warner Cable customers;
  • The agency presumes customers and shareholders nationwide should each receive 50% of the $800 million in savings;
  • Knowing New York deserves roughly 11% of that $800 million, divided equally between customers and shareholders, New Charter owes New Yorkers $43.5 million in benefits annually.

Staffers at the PSC prefer to deal in hard numbers and solid commitments when determining how New Charter intends to meet its obligation to New Yorkers, and all signs indicate the cable company was less than forthcoming. In colloquial terms, New Charter’s response to the PSC’s math can be summed up, ‘Whatever, you can trust us to work out the details after the merger.’

Alleged Deal “Benefits”

New Charter’s promises to invest more capital in New York than Time Warner Cable came with no specific investment commitments, despite repeated efforts to pin New Charter down on its spending plans. Some of the details about New Charter’s spending proposals are redacted in the document, but it isn’t difficult to discern reading between the lines New Charter has no plans to continue Time Warner Cable’s Maxx upgrade program beyond commitments already made, which in New York is limited to New York City, leaving all of upstate New York off the Maxx upgrade list. PSC staffers believe if Time Warner Cable remained independent, some or all of upstate New York would receive those Maxx upgrades in the near future.

new-charter-combined-footprint-640x480New Charter claims another merger benefit is their plan to upgrade Time Warner customers with new and improved IP-capable ‘Worldbox’ equipment and DVR’s offering more recording capacity. While conceding there were some minor benefits from offering customers more capable equipment, PSC staffers were skeptical New Charter’s plan represented much of a “consumer benefit,” because the equipment is not cheap and New Charter’s plan to eliminate analog television signals will mean every customer will have to rent one of Charter’s new boxes or a near equivalent.

New Charter’s promises of faster Internet speeds and upgraded cable systems would normally be seen as a direct consumer benefit, except Time Warner Cable already committed to its own Maxx upgrade effort that often outperforms what New Charter is promising. “Digitalization and associated speed increases can only truly be considered a benefit if [New Charter] can adequately demonstrate that Time Warner would not have otherwise completed a similar transition to an all digital, faster network in a similar timeframe [roughly 30 months],” PSC staffers concluded.

New Charter’s promise to expand low-income Internet access to Time Warner Cable customers, utilizing Bright House Networks’ Connect2Compete program, comes with many of the same restrictions Comcast’s own Internet Essentials program include. That issue was hotly debated during Comcast’s attempt to acquire Time Warner Cable, and many public interest groups opposed the merger for that reason. New Charter has also made no commitments to continue Time Warner’s no-restriction/no-contract/no-prequalification affordable $14.99 Internet service. In fact, the merger may worsen the affordable Internet problem, not improve it.

New Charter’s proposed expansion of Time Warner Cable’s Wi-Fi hotspot program is vague and mostly undefined beyond a general commitment to deploy at least 300,000 new out-of-home Wi-Fi access points across its national footprint within four years. New York regulators want to know how many of those would be in New York. Using the same formula to find how many New Charter customers are located in New York, it seems reasonable that redacted sections regarding the Wi-Fi hotspot program included an inquiry if New Charter planned at least 30,000 new access points for New York. New Charter did mention that once the proposed transaction is complete, it expected to evaluate the merits of leveraging in-home routers as public Wi-Fi access points, much like Comcast is doing today. Because Time Warner Cable has no firm plans about its Wi-Fi hotspot deployment program beyond this year, PSC staffers found it difficult to determine which company had the better Wi-Fi proposal for New Yorkers.

WiFiZonelogoNew Charter’s plans for expanded business broadband were also found to be vague, making it difficult to measure how much benefit New Charter would bring commercial clients in New York.

Status Quo

Time Warner cable systems will become indirect, wholly owned subsidiaries of New Charter. New Charter states that they are not seeking authority for the transfer of customers or for any changes in rates, terms or conditions of service and New Charter will also continue to provide Lifeline Discounted Telephone Service (Lifeline).

The PSC expects that customers will keep the same digital phone number they had with Time Warner; will have the same billing account information; and, other technology will continue to work seamlessly. In other words, the transaction should be technologically transparent for consumers.

The regulator also acknowledges that, after the proposed transaction, there should be no diminution in the number of service provider options available to consumers in the video market because Charter and Time Warner do not have overlapping service areas in New York. Since the potential for direct competition no longer exists, this assertion is in no way a benefit of the proposed transaction, it simply maintains the status quo.

The Bad and the Ugly

Despite claims from both cable companies there will be no negative impact as a result of the proposed transaction, PSC staff identified a number of serious issues that are likely to result if the merger is approved without any enforceable conditions or commitments:

Charter will be among America's top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

Charter will be among America’s top junk bond issuers. (Image: Bloomberg News)

New Charter intends to load itself with massive debt to pay for the merger. As a result, the combined company’s credit rating will take a significant hit. PSC staffers fear New Charter will be vulnerable if economic conditions decline, even to the point of default or bankruptcy. But before that happens, New Charter’s need to cope with its debt could result in reduced investment in system upgrades.

“If the operating environment declines for cable companies […] New Charter will have more difficulty maintaining the investments necessary to bring expanded products and provide good service quality to its customers and, thus, this represents the single most substantial risk of the proposed transaction,” the PSC staff warns. “Accordingly, the Commission should seek to mitigate this risk and ensure that New York receives net benefits that are sufficient to offset this and the other potential harms.”

After requesting Charter disclose its often hidden regular, non-promotional prices most cable customers eventually pay, the PSC discovered contrary to Charter’s claims its prices are lower than Time Warner Cable, in fact they are often higher. Time Warner Cable customers typically also receive more cable television channels for their dollar than Charter customers do. Consumers who bundled multiple services together got the best savings, but even those deals were priced comparably to what Time Warner Cable charges. In short, promises of savings are illusory.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork.

Time Warner Cable offers $14.99 to anyone without paperwork. Charter does not.

Broadband customers will also lose less-expensive broadband options they receive from Time Warner Cable. New Charter will drop Time Warner’s $14.99 “Everyday Low Price” 2Mbps Internet package, along with its Basic 3Mbps ($29.99) and Standard 15Mbps ($34.99) plans. New Charter’s least expensive broadband option for all consumers will be its Spectrum Internet 60Mbps plan, which carries an initial promotional price of $39.99 a month and a regular price just under $60.

“Time Warner’s lower priced offerings represent choices for New York consumers,” PSC staff concluded. “Any loss of these services would likely result in consumers paying more to ensure they have access to the same level of high-speed Internet service and its important resources.”

Jobs: New York is at risk of losing Time Warner Cable’s five call centers employing about 1,996 staff, 61 retail/walk-in centers employing 2,674 staff, nine corporate offices employing around 1,257 staff, nine service/maintenance locations employing approximately 1,687 staff, two media offices employing 435 staff, and 11 other service related functions employing about 1,003 staff, with total employment in the state of nearly 9,052.

PSC staffers have only received a commitment New Charter will not reduce the number of “customer facing” jobs in New York, but has said nothing about where the rest of its New York employees might be heading.

“There is a real danger that New Charter will look to gain operational efficiencies by moving/consolidating customer-facing jobs and other positions to out-of-state locations, despite any claims to the contrary,” the PSC staff reports. “Out-of-state service centers would make it difficult for it to maintain its current level of customer service. Longer wait times and lack of local knowledge could lead to increased frustration and dissatisfaction on the part of New York customers, and a significant decline in the overall level of service provided.”

What New York Regulators May Demand from New Charter to Approve a Merger

The PSC wants Charter to develop gigabit broadband for New York's top-five cities.

The PSC wants Charter to develop gigabit broadband for New York’s top-five cities.

When the PSC staffers added everything up it found the proposed merger offered little benefit to New Yorkers and would not result in a net positive benefit for New York. The staff recommended the merger be denied unless specific commitments are made to sweeten the deal for New York customers.

First, New Charter should be required to develop a strategic implementation plan to build-out its all-digital network to every remaining unserved or underserved Charter and Time Warner franchise area in New York. This would mean that any resident in a town serviced by either cable company would be able to buy service even if the company does not now offer it. Currently, areas considered unprofitable to serve within a franchise area are often bypassed. This would no longer be permitted, and New Charter would have to wire any commercial building, business, school, or home.

Second, Charter’s record of performance in New York is already less than impressive. In Columbia County, Charter operates an ancient one-way video service-only cable system serving Chatham, N.Y. The PSC staff recommends Charter be required to bring that cable system up to date. More broadly, the staff recommends Charter be forced to spend more money on system upgrades and improved service than Time Warner Cable would have on its own.

Third, qualifications to subscribe to Charter’s proposed $9.95 discount Internet program should be broadened to exclude fewer customers. Its speed should also be raised to at least 10Mbps. For everyone else not qualified to subscribe to Connect2Compete, the PSC staff recommends requiring New Charter to continue offering Time Warner’s Everyday Low Price $14.99 Internet tier at an enhanced speed of 3Mbps for a minimum of five years.

Fourth, Time Warner customers in New York should be granted promotional broadband pricing without modem fees for a minimum of three years, making New Charter’s ongoing price of its 60Mbps tier $39.99 a month, not the $59.99 a month Charter typically charges after one year.

Fifth, New Charter should be required to offer broadband service at speeds up to 100Mbps throughout its New York footprint within 30 months of the close of the proposed merger. New Charter should also be compelled to install infrastructure capable of offering 1,000Mbps (1Gbps) service in New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany by 2020.

Six, New York should require New Charter to change its current merger proposal to decrease leveraged debt and present a plan to restore the company’s credit rating to a level more comparable with Time Warner Cable.

Seven, New Charter should submit to oversight of its customer service performance by New York regulators, which will monitor how New Charter treats its customers. If the company falls below acceptable service standards, the PSC will have the authority to intervene based on an agreement with New Charter.

Finally, New Charter will agree to limit any significant changes to its New York call center or other customer-facing positions for at least two years and provide 90 days notice of any significant job relocations or reductions.

FCC Demands Details About Charter’s Suddenly Retired Usage Caps

charter twc bhLess than three months before announcing it would acquire Time Warner Cable in a $55 billion deal, Charter Communications quietly dropped usage caps, in place on its broadband plans since 2009, without explanation and the FCC wants to know why.

FCC officials have sent a letter to Charter requesting a range of information about the company’s broadband services, including information about Charter’s since-dropped usage cap program. The federal agency reviewing its buyout of Time Warner Cable wants to know when Charter dropped its usage caps and why.

Charter Communications has promoted “no usage caps” as a selling point to convince regulators its purchase of Time Warner Cable is a consumer-friendly transaction. Charter has promised a cap-free Internet experience for Time Warner Cable customers for three years, but has not committed to offer unlimited broadband service beyond that date.

Two months before Time Warner Cable planned a since-dropped 2009 market test of usage caps in New York, North Carolina and Texas, Charter Communications confirmed it was introducing “monthly residential bandwidth consumption thresholds” on its broadband customers ranging from 100GB for customers with speeds of 15Mbps or slower and 250GB for customers subscribed to 15-25Mbps service.

“In order to continue providing the best possible experience for our Internet customers, later this month we will be updating our Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to establish monthly residential bandwidth consumption thresholds,” Charter’s Eric Ketzer told DSL Reports at the time. “More than 99% of our customers will not be affected by our updated policy, as they consume far less bandwidth than the threshold allows.”

Few customers realized Charter had placed a cap on Internet usage because the cable company treated the limits as “soft caps” — guidelines they could cite if they found a customer using a very large amount of bandwidth. But customers were not charged overlimit fees and few ever heard from Charter about their usage, even if it well-exceeded their allowance.

In front of Time Warner Cable protesting Internet Overcharging in 2009.

In front of Time Warner Cable offices in Rochester, N.Y. protesting Time Warner Cable’s proposed usage caps. (April 2009)

Only a handful of companies, including national providers like AT&T (for DSL) and Comcast (in usage cap market trial areas), have followed up usage allowances with stinging overlimit fees for those exceeding them, applied to customer bills. The practice is far more common among smaller and regional cable companies like Alaska’s GCI, which earned 10 percent of its broadband revenue billing customers for excess usage.

In March of this year, Stop the Cap! reported Charter quietly dropped usage caps (or “thresholds”) from their Acceptable Use Policy, ending six years of usage capped service — less than three months before announcing it was acquiring Time Warner Cable.

Time Warner Cable’s own experience with usage caps was short-lived after Stop the Cap! and other consumer advocates and elected officials launched a protest campaign against Time Warner Cable’s plans to expand a test of usage-based billing beyond Beaumont, Tex. to Rochester, N.Y., Greensboro, N.C., and the cities of Austin and San Antonio in Texas.

Time Warner proposed four tiers of usage allowances: 5, 10, 20, and 40 GB priced from $29.95 to $54.90 a month. The overlimit fee was to be $1/GB. Sanford Bernstein, a Wall Street research firm, predicted an average family subscribed to Time Warner’s top 40GB usage plan would pay around $200 a month in overlimit fees if they used Netflix more than 7.25 hours a week.

Within two weeks of launching protests in the four cities where Time Warner was planning to add caps, the plan was shelved permanently. But many Time Warner Cable customers have remained wary of the company’s plans regarding usage caps. Time Warner’s retooled, optional usage capped tiers offered to customers looking for a discount have proved dismal failures since their introduction, with fewer than 1% of Time Warner customers finding usage-limited Internet access compelling.

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

Rationing Your Internet Experience?

Consumer advocates also fear usage caps could reappear under Charter as quickly as they disappeared. Stop the Cap! is suspicious of Charter’s time-limited commitment to keep customers free of usage caps for three years. We are lobbying state and federal regulators to permanently extend that commitment as a condition of approving any merger between Charter and Time Warner.

“Customers must be assured they can always choose a reasonably priced unlimited use Internet option,” said the group’s founder Phillip Dampier. “If Charter/Time Warner Cable/Bright House wants to offer optional discounts for customers volunteering to limit their personal use, we are not opposed to that. But based on Time Warner’s own record, you can count on only a few thousand customers willing to voluntarily surrender unlimited, flat rate access.”

Stop the Cap! believes there is no credible reason Internet providers should be imposing compulsory usage caps or usage billing on anyone.

“Broadband is a huge money-maker and the costs to offer it continue to drop even as provider profits rise,” said Dampier. “Rationing broadband with a usage allowance is as credible as rationing Niagara Falls or breathing.”

The FCC is also requesting documentation detailing Charter’s proposed expansion of Wi-Fi hotspots in Time Warner Cable areas and company plans to boost standard broadband speeds from 15Mbps to 60Mbps. Charter has until Oct. 13 to respond.

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