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N.Y. Gives Charter 2 Weeks to Come to Terms or Face Revocation of Charter-TWC Merger

The New York Public Service Commission has notified Charter Communications it won’t be the victim of an offer that promises one thing and delivers something less, giving the company 14 days to fully accept the terms of its Time Warner Cable/Charter merger approval or face the possibility of having the merger canceled, potentially throwing Charter’s business plans into chaos.

In a move any aggrieved cable customer would appreciate, Charter’s lawyers gave the PSC a deal that looked good on the surface, only to be eroded away in the fine print. In a May 2018 response to the Commission’s “show cause” order, threatening to severely fine the cable company for breaking its commitments to New York State, the cable company effectively responded it wasn’t their fault if the Commission missed the fact the company did not actually agree to everything the state thought it did, and was in full compliance of what it unilaterally agreed to do.

The hubris of the state’s largest cable operator did not go down well in Albany, to say the least. But first some background:

Charter is coming under fire in New York State for failing to meet its obligations to extend service in a timely way to 145,000 New York homes and businesses not part of Spectrum’s service area and also lack access to broadband service. Today the Commission, in a separate action, fined Charter $2 million, to be drawn from a line of credit previously set aside by the cable company, for failing to meet its original broadband buildout targets and failing to remedy its past poor performance.

Charter’s lawyers last month protested their innocence, claiming the company was not out of compliance with its agreement — in fact it was ahead of schedule.

Both things cannot be true, so who is being honest and who is trading in “alternative facts?”

To find out, one has to turn back the clock to 2016. On January 19, Charter’s attorneys sent an acceptance letter to the Commission in response to the regulator’s offer to approve the acquisition of Time Warner Cable if Charter agreed to a series of pro-consumer benefits designed to allow New York customers to share in the lucrative deal.

Charter agreed to dramatically increase Standard internet speeds for its New York customers, first to 100 Mbps by the end of 2018 and again to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019. Charter met its first commitment ahead of schedule and is on track to again increase speeds for New York residents before the end of next year.

The company also agreed to temporarily retain Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet program. Although that option has since expired for new customers, existing customers can keep the package until at least next year. But regulators note Charter has frequently made it difficult for New York customers to sign up for the program. Stop the Cap! has documented multiple instances of customers being told the plan was unavailable, or representatives have confused it with Spectrum Internet Assist, a similar budget-priced internet package for those that meet certain income and benefits qualifications.

But Charter’s agreement to expand its service to unserved areas of New York is where most of the current conflict arises. Stop the Cap! strongly recommended in our testimony to the PSC that rural broadband expansion be a part of a series of deal commitments that should be imposed on Charter if the Commission saw fit to approve the merger. The Commission agreed with our recommendation. That allows us to speak authoritatively that the Commission, in concert with the New York State government, framed that expansion commitment as an adjunct to the state’s Broadband 4 All program, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rural broadband expansion effort.

Charter would serve an integral role in the effort by extending service to homes and businesses just outside of its current service area. That would save the state millions in costs trying to subsidize other providers to expand into these typically unprofitable areas of the state. The design and intention of the expansion program was clear from the outset, and the Commission specifically requested Charter provide detailed lists of planned expansion areas, so the state could avoid duplicating its efforts and re-target funding to other areas of the state. The goal was to achieve near-universal broadband availability in every corner of New York.

The Commission’s 2016 letter to Charter seemed clear enough:

The conditions adopted in this Order and listed in Appendix A shall be binding and enforceable by the Commission upon unconditional acceptance by New Charter within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order. If the Petitioners’ unconditional acceptance is not received within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order, the Petitioners will have failed to satisfy their burden under the Public Service Law as described herein, and this Order shall constitute a denial of the Joint Petition.

But in Charter’s response on January 19, 2016, their lawyers got too cute by half (emphasis ours):

In accordance with the Commission’s Order Granting Joint Petition by Time Warner Cable Inc. (“Time Warner Cable”) and Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter”) dated January 8, 2016, Charter hereby accepts the Order Conditions for Approval contained in Appendix A, subject to applicable law and without waiver of any legal rights.

On May 9, 2018 the state discovered what that language discrepancy meant. Charter’s lawyers responded to the state’s charges that the company was not complying with the terms of the merger approval agreement with a classic “gotcha” letter, claiming Charter’s agreement provided only a “qualified” acceptance of language contained exclusively in Appendix A, and its obligations started and stopped there.

That is a distinction worth millions of dollars. Appendix A basically summarizes Charter’s commitment to expand to 145,000 new passings in New York, but does not explain the expansion program or its purpose. If only Appendix A did apply, it would allow Charter to count any new cable hookup, whether in a rural hamlet or more likely in a condo in Manhattan as a “new passing,” bringing it one customer closer to meeting its expansion commitment. Charter could count new wealthy gated communities, apartment buildings, offices, and converted lofts, despite the fact it would almost certainly wire those customers for service with or without its agreement with the state government. More importantly, Charter would successfully avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars to extend the cable line down a road just to reach one or two rural customers.

Charter’s lawyers seem to think that their clever loophole will win the company significant savings and avoid fines — too bad, so sad if the state’s lawyers failed to appreciate what Charter was actually willing to agree to in 2016 and what the state accepted by default by not catching the discrepancy sooner.

“Contrary to [Charter’s] assertions, however, the Approval Order accorded Charter only two explicit choices: (1) to accept unconditionally the commitments set forth in the body of the Approval Order and Appendix A; or (2) have the Joint Petition rejected, subject to Charter’s right to judicial review,” the Commission rebutted.

In short, the state is calling Charter’s possible bluff. If it truly intends not to agree to the original terms of the agreement, the state has the right to toss out the merger agreement, in part or in full, canceling the merger. Of course, Charter can always take the matter to court and hope it can find a judge that will accept Charter’s ‘partial agreement’ argument.

To say the PSC was displeased with Charter’s novel legal maneuver would be an understatement. In today’s ruling, the PSC severely admonished Charter for its bad behavior:

Charter was not free to pick and choose the conditions it would accept or the portions of the Approval Order with which it would comply, nor was Charter free to accept only some of the conditions in the Approval Order and Appendix A yet still obtain Commission approval of the merger transaction. Charter is likewise not free to rewrite the Commission’s conditions.

In effect, Charter is ripping off the people of New York, and the state’s regulators are having none of it.

“The Commission is troubled by Charter’s position that the Commission’s Approval Order means something other than what it actually states,” the PSC wrote. “Given that many of the obligations in that Order are continuing and will need to be fulfilled in the future, the Commission believes it is critical that Charter acknowledge the obligations it agreed to undertake in exchange for the benefits it received by the Commission’s conditional approval. Anything short of an unconditional full acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A would deprive New York state of its fair share of the incremental benefits.”

It is likely we will know where this is headed by mid-July, because the PSC has given Charter 14 days to recommit itself to the PSC’s original merger terms, not just those in infamous Appendix A. It signaled it will no longer debate the matter, either, telling Charter “the Commission will not countenance that conduct” and wants action:

Charter is directed to cure its defective acceptance and file with the Secretary to the Commission a new letter indicating its full unconditional acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A thereof within 14 days.

Should Charter, however, fail to provide a new letter indicating full unconditional acceptance, the Commission may pursue other remedies at its disposal, including but not necessarily limited to the following.

First, beginning proceedings pursuant to PSL §216 to rescind, modify or amend the Approval Order, specifically, the Commission’s approval of the transfer of the Time Warner’s cable franchises and associated facilities, networks, works and systems to Charter, in whole or in part.

Second, initiate an enforcement action pursuant to PSL §26 for failing to comply with the Approval Order’s Ordering Clause 1 including an action in Supreme Court to adjudicate the dispute and/or declare the Commission’s conditional approval null and void for lack of an unconditional acceptance.

And, third, initiate a penalty action for being out of compliance with the Approval Order’s unconditional acceptance requirement under PSL §25.

It’s a teachable moment for regulators, one that cable customers have come to learn over decades of bad experiences. It’s never a good idea to trust a cable company.

Comcast Dumps Congestion Management System It Says Was Unused for a Year

Image courtesy: cobalt123Comcast has quietly dropped its internet congestion management system, designed to slow down its heaviest users, claiming it has gone unused for more than a year and was no longer needed.

Originally spotted by readers of DSL Reports, the announcement referenced the system that replaced Comcast’s speed throttle that intentionally degraded peer-to-peer network traffic after Comcast claimed it was unfairly impacting its other customers:

As reflected in a June 11, 2018 update to our XFINITY Internet Broadband Disclosures, the congestion management system that was initially deployed in 2008 has been deactivated. As our network technologies and usage of the network continue to evolve, we reserve the right to implement a new congestion management system if necessary in the performance of reasonable network management and in order to maintain a good broadband Internet access service experience for our customers, and will provide updates here as well as other locations if a new system is implemented.

Comcast’s “protocol-agnostic” network management technology, designed by Sandvine and introduced in 2008, measured customer traffic and singled out heavy users for speed reductions when Comcast’s network was saturated with traffic. Customers were unaware if they were deemed heavy users or if their traffic was targeted for temporary speed reductions. Comcast relied on the technology, along with the introduction of a 250 GB nationwide data cap, to control network traffic and stall the need for expensive node-split upgrades.

Comcast claims the introduction of DOCSIS 3.0 (starting in late 2008) and DOCSIS 3.1 (2017) gradually eliminated the need to maintain the congestion management system, because channel bonding vastly expanded available internet bandwidth. What remains in place in most Comcast service areas is Comcast’s controversial 1 TB usage cap. The company initially claimed its data caps were part of a network traffic management strategy, but more recently the company claims it collects more from heavy users to compensate for its broadband investments.

AT&T Upgrades Home Internet Plans – 5, 100, 300, and 1,000 Mbps Now Available

AT&T quietly changed their home internet plans this week, dramatically boosting speeds for some of their lower-priced offerings in areas served by fiber, while boosting gigabit pricing by $10 a month in some instances.

Last week, AT&T was selling 5, 50, 100, and 1000 Mbps plans in AT&T Fiber areas. This week, customers can choose 5, 100, 300, or 1000 Mbps. Existing customers will likely have to switch plans to get the speed upgrades.

Prices shown reflect a bundled discount in the Chicago area. Prices vary in different service areas and are higher for broadband-only service. Basic 5 Mbps pricing can range from $30-60 a month depending on area and available discounts.

If you are a new AT&T customer, the company is offering a $50 Reward Card rebate (expires 7/31/2018) and a free Smart Wi-Fi Extender (new or existing customers switching to gigabit service only) (expires 6/28/2018). Here are some other important terms and conditions to be aware of:

  • There is a 1 TB data cap on all plans except Gigabit Internet 1,000, which is unlimited. But you can avoid the cap for $30 extra a month (not worth it) or by maintaining a bundle of TV and internet service on a combined bill.
  • All internet offers require a 12 month agreement ($180 pro-rated early termination fee applies).
  • Prices reflect bundled service combining internet with at least one other AT&T product (TV/AT&T Phone/Wireless).

FCC’s Ajit Pai Promises to Protect Internet Consumers By Not Protecting Them

Christmas comes early for Comcast and AT&T, thanks to Ersatz Santa, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

In the view of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and his Republican colleagues serving as members of the Federal Communications Commission, Monday – June 11, 2018 is Internet Freedom Day, marking the official end of net neutrality. Republican FCC commissioners, working hand-in-hand with the nation’s largest telecommunications companies, successfully abolished a pro-consumer rule that ensured all internet traffic was treated equally by your internet service provider, with a ban on paid fast lanes and other types of traffic discrimination. 

The FCC website has a new look today, one that discourages consumers from bringing internet-related complaints to an agency that has invited consumers to reach out about unresolved internet problems since the earliest days of internet access.

While much of the country is focused on the Republicans’ successful repeal of open internet protections, many might have missed the fact the FCC also intends to ‘pass the buck’ on your internet problems to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), an agency that can take a year or more to bring action against companies suspected of violating the law.

Consumers who visit the FCC’s Consumer Complaint Center will find a stripped down resource that now primarily exists to forward consumer complaints to another federal agency. Chairman Pai has made certain the experience is as discouraging as possible for those who manage to find their way to the FCC’s complaint department (emphasis ours):

If you choose to file an informal complaint with the FCC about an Internet-related issue, we will share the information you provide, including your name and contact information, with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Your complaint may be used to investigate cases or in a legal proceeding.

Before proceeding with your submission, please note that an informal consumer complaint should only be filed at the FCC if you have a specific issue with your provider.

If you are interested in submitting an informal complaint about an Internet-related issue, please complete this form.

The old form made no mention of the FTC, which is central to Pai’s new “hands off” policy at the FCC.

This morning, Pai told CBS that the Federal Trade Commission will now work to prevent such cases of “bad apples in the internet economy” from ripping off consumers.

“We’ve empowered the FTC to take action against any company that might act in any anti-competitive way,” said Pai. “The consumer is going to be protected and we preserve the incentive for companies to build out better, faster, and cheaper internet access. Consumers need to be protected and the FTC is the only one under current law that can do that.”

But Pai’s claims don’t ring true to Gigi Sohn, who served as a counselor to former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler.

Sohn

“Should consumers or innovators have a complaint about fraudulent, discriminatory, privacy violating or predatory pricing practices of broadband ISPs, the FCC won’t answer their call,” Sohn said. “For the first time since the creation of broadband, the agency will not take responsibility for protecting consumers or competition.”

Neither will the FTC, which warns would-be complainants upfront on its website: “The FTC cannot resolve individual complaints, but we can provide information about what next steps to take,” which is equivalent to calling the fire department because your house is on fire and receiving a booklet that explains how to acquire and use a hose to put the fire out yourself.

ISP’s no longer need fear having a federal agency like the FCC following every consumer complaint. The FTC claims it may share your complaint with local, state, federal, and foreign law enforcement partners, or may be used to investigate cases or hold a legal proceeding. But unlike the guidelines the FCC answered to under the Obama Administration, there is no requirement to force a provider to quickly respond to you, no easy access to statistics detailing received internet-related complaints (such as the tens of thousands of complaints about data caps, throttling, and net neutrality collected by the FCC under the last administration), and no significant likelihood of action. Want an example? The FTC has been charged with ending the scourge of automated robocalls that generated more than 275,000 complaints last year… from the state of Ohio alone. In the last two years, the FTC issued press releases touting cases brought against a total of three alleged telemarketers. Has your phone stopped ringing?

Under the Trump Administration’s FCC, it is open season on consumers, and the complaint department is now closed.

NextGen Fiber: 10 Gbps XGS-PON Heads to Frontier, Greenlight Networks

As gigabit internet becomes more common across the United States, some ISPs are seeking a speed advantage by offering even faster speeds to residential and business customers. On Tuesday, Nokia announced Frontier Communications and Rochester, N.Y.-based Greenlight Networks would be upgrading their fiber networks to the company’s XGS-PON solution, which can handle 10 Gbps upload and download speeds.

“Next Generation PON technologies such as XGS-PON are increasingly being deployed as demand for ultra-broadband applications and services continue to grow,” said Julie Kunstler, principal analyst at Ovum, in a statement. “Providing operators with the ability to use the same passive and active plants, XGS-PON solutions like Nokia’s can be quickly deployed and used to capture 10Gbps service opportunities that help operators to improve the return on their existing fiber network investments.”

Many existing fiber networks currently rely on GPON (gigabit passive optical network) technology — which allows one fiber in a bundle of fibers to service multiple homes and businesses. GPON networks are typically capable of download speeds of 2.488 Gbps and shared upstream speeds of 1.244 Gbps. Many ISPs using GPON technology typically offer fast download speeds, but often slower upload speeds.

Next generation XGS-PON allows up to 10 Gbps in both directions over existing fiber networks. In fact, the technology is future proof, allowing operators to immediately upgrade to faster speeds and later move towards Full TWDM-PON, an even more robust technology, without expensive network upgrades.

Most providers are leveraging XGS-PON technology to deliver symmetrical broadband — same upload and download speeds — to residential customers and to expand network capacity to avoid congestion. XPS-PON technology also supports faster-than-gigabit speeds than can be attractive to commercial customers.

Frontier intends to deploy Nokia’s technology in ex-Verizon markets in California, Texas, and Florida, beginning in Dallas-Fort Worth. It will allow Frontier to beef up its FiOS network and market stronger broadband products to Texas businesses. In Rochester, Greenlight will use the technology to upgrade its fiber service, which competes locally with Frontier DSL and Charter/Spectrum. Spectrum recently introduced gigabit download speed in Rochester. Greenlight can now expand beyond its 1 Gbps offering, but more importantly, increase its maximum upload speed beyond 100 Mbps.

“Greenlight is constantly looking at ways we can deliver new services that fit every customer need. We pride ourselves on offering the fastest internet speeds available in the markets we serve and Nokia’s XGS-PON technology will play a critical part in our ability to deliver these services to our customers,” said Greenlight CEO Mark Murphy. “With Nokia’s next-generation PON fiber solution we will be able to deliver the latest technologies, applications, products and services quickly and reliably to our customers and ensure they have access to the ultra-broadband speeds and capacity they require now and in the future.”

Nokia points out its XGS-PON technology may also be very attractive to wireless companies considering deploying 5G services. Extensive fiber assets available in area neighborhoods will be crucial for the success of millimeter wave 5G technology, which relies on small cells placed around neighborhoods and fed by fiber optics.

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  • dhkjsalhf: "Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments." I don't know whether this was sarcastic or not, but I feel it's a sentiment...
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  • New Yorker: Will New York go through with the threat? As an upstater I have seen infrastructure projects drag on in cost and time (eg. 1.5 yrs to repair a tiny b...
  • Matthew H Mosher: Another classic case of businesses being much smarter than governments....
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  • Dylan: Hopefully this does not happen as I would like to see Charter continue with its current plans of upgrades in NY, like the 200mbps upgrade. Maybe Chart...
  • Phillip Dampier: If they withdraw the granted merger, Spectrum will not be able to continue business in New York. The franchises, which are still in the name of Time W...
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