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FCC Surrenders on Municipal Broadband; Won’t Appeal Pre-Emption Loss to Supreme Court

Slow-Road-Sign-378pxCommunity broadband advocates will have to redouble their efforts to overturn state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband, because the Federal Communications Commission today signaled it will no longer be a part of that fight.

The federal regulator chaired by Thomas Wheeler sought to preempt state laws that restrict or ban publicly owned broadband networks, but municipal broadband opponents challenged the FCC in court and won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit. The judges found the FCC had exceeded its authority.

“The FCC will not seek further review of the Sixth Circuit’s decision on municipal broadband after determining that doing so would not be the best use of Commission resources,” agency spokesperson Mark Wigfield told Motherboard.

In short, the FCC will let stand that court’s decision overturning the FCC’s preemption of state laws that restrict or prohibit municipal broadband, handing a major victory to Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable (now Charter).

“Sometimes you’ve got to know when to fold ‘em,” Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, told Motherboard. “This case was always something of a long-shot, but now it’s too much of a long-shot to put money on.”

The decision not to appeal will require broadband advocates to battle in each impacted state to overturn the restrictive laws, which could be a long and arduous process. The alternative is voting in a majority of Democrats to the U.S. House and Senate. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker (NJ) introduced the “Community Broadband Act” — legislation to end anti-broadband state laws. Critics of the laws contend they are often written and lobbied for by incumbent telecom companies that don’t want competition. But the legislation has no chance of passage as long as Republicans maintain their House and Senate majority.

Windstream Brings Kinetic TV to Communities Around Charlotte, North Carolina

Kinetic WindstreamWindstream will bring its fiber to the neighborhood service Kinetic TV to around 50,000 homes in 13 suburban and exurban communities surrounding Charlotte, N.C., to stay competitive with Time Warner Cable/Charter and a publicly owned cable system serving Mooresville.

The independent phone company submitted a formal application for a cable television franchise with North Carolina’s Department of the Secretary of State to begin offering television service in Albemarle, Badin, China Grove, Concord, Harrisburg, Hemby Bridge, Indian Trail, Kannapolis, Matthews, Mooresville, Mt. Pleasant, New London and Oakboro.

Windstream claims Kinetic TV leverages “a 100 percent fiber-backed network,” which leaves customers with the impression they are getting fiber optic delivery of television, broadband, and phone service. In fact, for many communities Windstream is constructing a network similar to AT&T U-verse. The phone company brings fiber optic cables into each neighborhood, but relies on existing copper wire infrastructure connecting individual homes to a nearby fiber optic-connected neighborhood hub. The upgrade allows Windstream to expand broadband capacity to support concurrent use of television, phone and internet access. For many Windstream customers complaining about the poor performance of Windstream’s DSL service, that offers a significant improvement. But Windstream does provide even better upgrades in some communities. In April 2016, Windstream launched gigabit speed internet service for seven North Carolina towns: China Grove, Concord, Davidson, Harrisburg, Kannapolis, Lewisville and Matthews. By applying for a statewide video franchise agreement in North Carolina, Windstream will be able to sell cable television service along with gigabit broadband speed.

Kinetic TV is now an exceptionally good deal for new customers.

Kinetic TV is currently available in Lincoln, Neb., Lexington, Ky., and Sugar Land, Tex.

Kinetic TV is already available in Lincoln, Neb., Lexington, Ky., and Sugar Land, Tex.

Windstream aggressively prices its most deluxe double play package of 50Mbps broadband and 270+ channels and Whole House DVR service at a one-year introductory price of $89.99 a month with a one-year service commitment. Customers can upgrade to a triple play package with the same 12 month commitment that includes a phone line with unlimited long distance calling for just $2 more — $91.99 a month. New double/triple-play customers also receive a one-time bill credit of $250, which will generally cover the first two months of service. This promotion is by far the best value for money. Unfortunately, after the promotion expires your price increases by $72.99 to $162.98 a month.

Kinetic TV operates with wireless set-top boxes that can be moved to different televisions as needed. The DVR can handle recording four channels at the same time and Windstream promises no lag while channel changing. The usual $80 installation fee is waived when new customers sign up under a promotional offer. Anyone can register to be notified about Windstream’s promotional offers on the company’s website and will likely receive an invitation as Kinetic TV becomes available in your area.

Earlier this year, Windstream debuted Kinetic TV in Sugar Land, Tex., joining the communities of Lexington, Ky. and Lincoln, Neb. The 13 small cities and communities in North Carolina will be Windstream’s fourth service area for Kinetic TV.

Kinetic TV's Whole House DVR

Kinetic TV’s Whole House DVR

The service has received generally positive reviews from those not expecting to place a lot of demand on the service. The fastest internet package tops out for most at 50Mbps and some customers report their actual speeds are sometimes slightly lower. Windstream currently offers Kinetic customers unlimited, uncapped data plans. If you cancel service before the end of your contract, the penalty as stated in Windstream’s terms and conditions is among the steepest we have ever seen: 100% of the charges you would have paid had you kept the service through the rest of your contract.

There is other fine print:

  • Kinetic TV cannot support more than four Standard Definition video streams (television sets in use concurrently). HD channels for recording or viewing are limited to between one and four, depending on the capacity of your connection. If you exceed it, the remaining video streams or recordings will be in Standard Definition.
  • Kinetic TV will not allow pay per view or video on demand charges to exceed $200 in a calendar month.
  • Prices above include one Kinetic TV receiver. Each additional box is billed at $7 a month, and may be limited in quantity. A Windstream gateway, also required for service, is assessed a separate monthly charge.
  • Your internet speeds may be affected by how many televisions are concurrently in use in your home.
  • Windstream collects information about programming watched, recorded, or accessed. Currently, they use this information to make general programming recommendations to all customers and/or specific recommendations to you based on your personal viewing habits.

(Windstream pricing information gathered by entering a residential street address in Sugar Land, Tex., Zip Code 77478.)

Charter’s Plans for Time Warner Cable, Bright House Customers Apparently Leaked

charter twc bhCharter’s plans for Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks customers are now potentially clearer thanks to the apparent leak of several informational slides from a presentation given to employees to familiarize them with Charter’s forthcoming service plans.

A reader of DSL Reports in California shared what purports to be informational slides from a company training course. Los Angeles is among the first markets to be offered the new Charter/Spectrum service plans, likely to arrive as early as mid-September.

We’ve condensed the information down into a more readable format to give you an idea (subject to change, of course) about Charter’s pricing and plans. Existing customers may not need to give up their current plans right away, and some customers may not want to. Charter has recognized Time Warner Cable Maxx’s network upgrades in its plans and pricing, which means customers already upgraded for Maxx service will get better value from Charter’s plans than those customers who never made the upgrade list before Time Warner Cable was sold.

Keep in mind Charter will start by offering all “New Charter” customers a “new customer” promotion, priced low the first year and then increasing incrementally in price during the second and third years. Year three pricing will be equivalent to Charter’s regular price, which will be substantially higher than customers on Time Warner Cable customer retention plans have paid. Charter’s service plans offer improved broadband speeds, but at a significantly higher price. Standalone broadband customers in particular will feel an immediate sting. Charter’s entry-level price for most customers is $59.99 for 60Mbps, about $25 more than Time Warner Cable’s promotional rate for Standard 15/1Mbps service, which has been selling for about $35/mo for the first year. Charter will point out that it includes a cable modem for free while Time Warner Cable charged $10 a month, but that offers no solace to customers who have purchased their own equipment.

Please note these plans and prices have not been officially confirmed by Charter. In fact, we would not be surprised to see some pricing changes before the plans are officially available.

TELEVISION

spectrum selectThere are big changes in store from Charter. First, the company will end distribution and support for Digital Transport Adapters (DTAs) — the small boxes designed for older analog-only TV sets. Charter expects you to have a traditional set-top box on every cable-equipped TV in the house. Second, it seems Whole House DVR service is being discontinued. Charter prefers the alternative of placing DVR boxes on each set where you want to record and watch TV shows. There is a significant cost for Time Warner Cable to install Whole House DVR service and it involves a technician coming to your home. Charter seems to want to cut truck roll expenses, and traditional DVR boxes are easy for customers to install themselves.

DVR pricing is still confusing for customers. A single DVR box is priced at $4.99 for the equipment + an $11.99 DVR service fee. DVR’s 2-4 cost $4.99 per box + a $19.99 DVR service fee. We are not sure if the $19.99 inclusively covers all DVR boxes in the home or if that is charged for each additional DVR. (Update: STC reader Ricardo reports the $19.99 fee is inclusive, so it is only charged once regardless of how many extra DVRs you have.)

For the first year, traditional set-top boxes for New Charter customers are a bargain at $4.99/mo. Legacy Charter customers pay $2 more, and we predict you will pay more as well after the first year, but the equipment fees are less than what Time Warner Cable charged.

Customers will choose from three plans: Select, Silver, or Gold:

  • Select: 125+ channels (HD included), Spectrum App (comparable to TWC TV app), 10,000+ On Demand Library ($64.99)
  • Silver: 175+ channels (HD included), Spectrum App, On Demand, HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, NFL Network ($84.99)
  • Gold: 200+ channels (HD included), Spectrum App, On Demand, premiums shown above + TMC, Starz, Encore, Epix, NFL Redzone ($104.99)

Charter’s pricing is built to encourage customers to bundle multiple services together, because substantial discounts are provided, especially when combining TV and internet service.

INTERNET

(Image courtesy of Tech_Guy 88/DSL Reports)

(All presentation slide images courtesy of Tech_Guy 88/DSL Reports)

Charter moves to just two tiers of service available to the public (except in New York where TWC’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet continues to be an option for the next two years — although it has been removed from TWC’s website) and standalone broadband pricing is considerably more expensive with Charter than with Time Warner Cable.

Perhaps special promotional offers will bring standalone internet prices closer to the $34.95-39.95 most new customers have gotten for Time Warner’s Standard Service (15/1Mbps) for years. We expect most customers will be more sensitive to price vs. speed and standalone internet at these prices will be a shock. We are not certain if Earthlink will continue to be an alternative option.

Upload speeds in non-Maxx areas are conservative, if these slides are accurate, topping out at just 5Mbps. This still leaves Charter as one of the slower U.S. providers.

In TWC Non-Maxx Areas (maximum TWC speed now 50/5Mbps):

  • Spectrum Internet 60/5Mbps: Standalone $59.99/mo or $29.99 as part of a triple play package (first year promo price), $59.99 standalone or $53.99 as part of a bundle (regular price);
  • Spectrum Ultra 100/5Mbps: Standalone $119.99/mo or $99.99 as part of bundled package (first year promo price), $119.99 standalone or $113.99 as part of a bundle (regular price).

In TWC Maxx Territories (maximum speed now 300Mbps):

  • Spectrum Internet 100/10Mbps: Standalone $59.99/mo or $29.99 as part of a triple play package (first year promo price), $59.99 standalone or $53.99 as part of a bundle (regular price);
  • Spectrum Ultra 300/20Mbps: Standalone $119.99/mo or $99.99 as part of bundled package (first year promo price), $119.99 standalone or $113.99 as part of a bundle (regular price)

Spectrum Wi-Fi, for those without their own routers, can be added to any internet plan for a $9.99 setup charge and $5 a month.

spectrum assistCharter’s discount plan for the income-challenged carries the usual restrictions. The most unconscionable effectively forces current Charter customers to go with internet access for 60 days before they can enroll in Spectrum Internet Assist. They also must not owe any past due balance to Charter.

Assuming you qualify (eligible for the National School Lunch Program and senior citizens 65 years and older eligible for the federal Supplemental Security Income program), $14.99 will get you up to 30/4Mbps, plus an extra $5 a month if you want Charter to supply a Wi-Fi enabled router. The usual $9.99 activation fee is waived. Self-installation is free. If they have to send a truck to your home, the prevailing standard installation rate will apply. This is the only level of service Charter sells that will not require a credit check.

PHONE

Time Warner’s phone service had been promoted for years at $10 a month as part of a double-play or triple-play bundle. Charter’s triple play bundle pricing seems to show the price for phone service will now be effectively $20 a month.

Charter’s digital phone service has never seemed to be a marketing priority for Charter in its legacy service areas, and will likely be treated as an afterthought going forward. No further information about any service or calling area changes from what Time Warner Cable offered is available yet.

Comcast Backs Off Charging Customers Double for Gigabit Speed in Chicago

comcast gigabitTo be a Google Fiber city or not to be a Google Fiber city. It could make a big difference to your wallet if Comcast upgrades broadband speeds in your neighborhood before Google Fiber finally arrives in your “fiberhood.”

When Comcast first announced a major trial of DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit broadband service in Chicago, it confirmed it would cost $139.95 a month — double the price Comcast charges customers in cities where Google Fiber has expressed an interest in providing gigabit service as well. With Chicago nowhere on the Google Fiber upgrade list, it seemed Comcast was prepared to prove the point that competition can really make a difference in broadband pricing, at least until stories appeared headlining Comcast’s pricing policies. Within hours, Comcast “clarified” it was prepared to sell gigabit service in Chicago for $70 a month as well, with a three-year contract.

“We are now able to deliver gigabit speeds over the existing lines that already reach millions of homes in the Chicago area,” Comcast spokesman Jack Segal told the Chicago Tribune. “This is a major step in the evolution of high-speed broadband.”

This is not Comcast bringing a new fiber line to your home or business. This is gigabit download speed over Comcast’s current cable/fiber network — the same one that delivers your current broadband service. DOCSIS 3.1 allows Comcast to bond additional channels together to boost speeds, at least on the downstream side. This technology will not deliver gigabit speed in both directions, at least for now. Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 gigabit plan delivers 1,000Mbps download speed, but just 35Mbps upstream. Customers looking for something faster can pay dramatically more for Comcast’s Gigabit Pro fiber to the home service, offering 2,000Mbps speeds. But it will cost up to $1,000 to install and is priced at $300 a month with a two-year contract.

Comcast’s 1TB usage cap (with up to $200 in overlimit fees) will apply to Comcast’s DOCSIS 3.1 plans, unless you opt for unlimited service… for another $50 a month. Comcast gracefully includes unlimited with its Gigabit Pro service.

gigabit comcast

Chicago residents can sign up for either gigabit plan at www.xfinity.com/gig. A $50 installation fee applies and a service call is required. Customers signing up will need a new cable modem that supports DOCSIS 3.1, and there are only a handful on the market so far. Many more will be available in 2017.

AT&T’s Cash Storm for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s 2017 Telecom Deregulation Agenda

Phillip Dampier August 18, 2016 Issues 3 Comments

fat cat attAT&T has gone over the top donating at least $70,000 to back Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan, more than the company has ever donated to anyone else.

It isn’t by coincidence.

According to Communications Daily (subscription req’d), one of Ryan’s top priorities for 2017 is a possible complete rewrite of the Telecommunications Act — the nation’s most important federal law governing telecommunications regulation and the operations of the Federal Communications Commission. Ryan and many of his fellow Republicans have been critical of the FCC’s growing interest in consumer protection and industry oversight.

Ryan’s efforts to push for further deregulation and policies that could lead to further industry consolidation could generate a windfall in the billions for AT&T. Past revisions of the Act have radically transformed the telecom landscape in the United States. President Bill Clinton’s signature on the 1996 Telecommunications Act opened the door to a tsunami of cross-media ownership and radio/TV station consolidation. Provisions in the ’96 Act were promoted as bolstering competition, but critics argued consolidation was favored over competition.

Howard Zinn summarized the effects of the ’96 law in his book A People’s History of the United States: “[it] enabled the handful of corporations dominating the airwaves to expand their power further. Mergers enabled tighter control of information.” Adding to the criticism, Latin American writer Eduardo Galeano echoed: “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few.”

In 2000 Consumers Union blasted the ’96 Act as legislative bait and switch.

Ryan

Ryan

“It is evident that the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has failed to produce the consumer benefits policy makers promised because competition has failed to take hold across the communications industry,” the group said. “The fundamental problem is that the huge companies that dominate the telephone and cable TV industries prefer mergers and acquisitions to competition.”

AT&T is reportedly interested in access to lawmakers to lobby for telecom reforms that will allow it to switch off its legacy copper wire phone network in rural America, force certain consumers to wireless-only landline service, get rid of Net Neutrality, allow more wireless industry consolidation, ban municipal broadband, have a louder voice on privacy and cybersecurity regulation, access to wireless spectrum, and preferably a de-fanged FCC.

Public Citizen government affairs lobbyist Craig Holman told Communications Daily AT&T’s contributions are a “fundamental way of gaining access and influence to policymakers,” as part of Washington’s “pay-to-play system.”

The only entity giving Ryan more money than AT&T was the deregulation-obsessed Koch Industries, which gave $75,000.

Ryan’s current chief of staff is a close friend to Big Telecom. David Hoppe lobbied for AT&T, USTelecom and Verizon before being hired by Ryan. Hoppe’s influence appears to be significant after Ryan introduced “A Better Way,” the GOP’s platform for what they will do if they keep control of Congress and win the White House. The plan makes it clear there is unhappiness with the FCC under the leadership of chairman Thomas Wheeler, opposition to Title II reclassification of broadband — a change that opened the door to enforcing Net Neutrality, and a belief the FCC lacks transparency and is living in the regulatory past.

Holman worries that lobbyist spending in Washington, already a problem, has become insane after Citizens United eliminated limits on campaign contributions.

“The lids have been blown off… it’s breathtaking,” Holman told the newsletter.

Meet North Carolina’s Sen. Thom Tillis (R-ALEC/Time Warner Cable)

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC's "Legislator of the Year" and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Tillis was honored in 2011 as ALEC’s “Legislator of the Year” and received an undisclosed cash reward.

Back when we first became aware of Republican member of the North Carolina legislature Thom Tillis around 2010, he was hard at work building his political future just as Republicans were poised to take control of the state legislature for the first time since the days of Reconstruction. Despite running unopposed in 2010, Tillis raised more money from cable and phone companies than any other lawmaker in the state, depositing $37,000 before knowing he would be the next Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives in January 2011. To celebrate, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon each gave Tillis $1,000 just a few weeks before the swearing-in ceremony. It was money well spent, if you were a cable or phone company doing business in North Carolina.

Tillis left the legislature in 2015 to become the junior U.S. Senator from North Carolina. The telecom industry made sure to keep the campaign contributions flowing, if only to give their thanks for Tillis’ unwavering support for their agenda. Tillis doesn’t care much for his rural constituents still waiting for something better than dial-up internet access and as long as his campaign coffers remain bulging with corporate contributions, he doesn’t think he has much to fear from the state’s voters either. After all, he survived accusations from a resigning House Finance chairman that he had a secret business relationship with Time Warner Cable.

Raleigh’s The News & Observer felt it was their duty to mention Tillis in their editorial pages anyway, taking him to task for “cheering a loss for North Carolina consumers last week after a federal appeals court upheld a cable company protection law that he supported as state House speaker in 2011.”

The newspaper is talking about North Carolina’s infamous anti-public broadband bill that was literally constructed by lobbyists working for Time Warner Cable. The law effectively made it impossible for community broadband providers to bring their much-needed service to adjacent communities that have waited more than a decade for companies like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others to offer internet access in rural and underserved parts of the state.

Tillis personally helped shepherd the corporate protection bill, designed to shield incumbent cable and phone companies from community competition, through the state legislature, supporting it every step of the way. It would become law in 2011 and rural broadband in North Carolina hasn’t gotten any better since. In fact, it’s almost stagnant. But Tillis cannot say the same thing about his campaign bank accounts, which continue to bulge with corporate donations now in excess of $11 million.

An effort by the Federal Communications Commission to pre-empt the state law failed in a federal appeals court, much to the delight of Thom Tillis, something the newspaper calls an “insult” to North Carolinians looking for a better deal.

“Today’s ruling affirms the fact that unelected bureaucrats at the FCC completely overstepped their authority by attempting to deny states like North Carolina from setting their own laws to protect hard-working taxpayers and maintain the fairness of the free market,” Tillis said in a statement. Cough, cough.

The newspaper’s response:

Translation: Time Warner and other companies, thank goodness, will retain control of the market without having to worry about towns competing with them and thus will be able to charge people whatever the market will bear.

For Tillis to say the court ruling, which should be appealed, is a triumph for taxpayers is preposterous. It’s a setback. The “free market” he backs is one free of competition from municipal broadband services that offer a better product at a lower price.

French Unions, Media Warn America: Beware of Altice!

Look what's in the box. MergeMaster Patrick Drahi. (Illustration: Michel Kichka)

Look what’s in the box. MergeMaster Patrick Drahi. (Illustration: Michel Kichka)

Cable conglomerate baron Patrick Drahi promised American, French and Portuguese consumers he would bring them value for money by taking control of large established telecom companies in both countries and revamp their products and services to bring improved service. Consumer advocates in all three countries continue to argue customers are still waiting for Drahi’s debt-laden Altice empire to deliver on its promises.

A flurry of mid-summer articles in the French media continue to acknowledge Drahi’s formula has brought results — for him and his top executive minions, but has caused headaches for employees, customers, and even the government.

The biggest firestorm involves Altice-owned SFR’s newly-announced plan to slash at least 5,000 more jobs at France’s fourth-largest mobile operator, which also provides wired cable-TV and broadband services in parts of the country. That represents at least one-third of SFR’s total workforce. The planned cuts run so deep, some in the French press call them “violent.” These new cuts are on top of the 1,200 jobs Drahi cut when he took control of SFR two years ago. An Altice executive warned that if they still perceive to be “fat on the bone,” there will be further cuts after that, presumably starting in 2019.

The job cuts have raised the ire of some in the French press because one of the conditions of Altice’s takeover of SFR was a commitment not to cut jobs. But some reporters may have missed the fine print negotiated with regulators  — the job protection agreement expires in July 2017, after which Drahi can slash at will. And he will.

Investment banks love it. American and European banks have loaned €50 billion ($55 billion) — a record amount — to Drahi to buy up telecom companies on a virtual credit card and deliver short-term results by slashing expenses, which at least temporarily boosts profits. When customers find out the implications of the draconian cuts, they complain and tend to leave. But savvy investors learn how to cash out before that happens, often walking away with huge returns. Such methods have been business-as-usual in the United States for a long time. But Drahi has improved on the old formula of relying on OPM – Other People’s Money – to build his empire.

Altice1Some of the money flowing through Altice’s coffers comes from the French taxpayer, currently footing the bill for unpopular French President François Hollande’s key measure to boost the competitiveness of French companies — the Tax Credit for Competitiveness and Employment (CICE), which significantly cuts employer’s labor expenses. Altice has been a grateful recipient of this gift from French taxpayers, who pay for it through new ecological taxes and an increase in Value Added Tax (VAT) rates, which like our sales tax, applies to goods and services one buys. The standard VAT rate in France is now 20%, with 10% charged on restaurant meals, transport, renovation/improvement works and certain medical drugs, and 5.5% on food, water and non alcoholic beverages, books, special equipment for the disabled and school meals. The other half of the money spent implementing the CICE came from decreased public spending on infrastructure and social service programs. Take from the poor and middle class and give to the corporations, Hollande’s critics claim. The program was supposed to protect employment, but critics say it has had little or no effect beyond enriching large corporate conglomerates who hire and fire for their own reasons, and are not particularly concerned about what that could do to future government payouts.

French newspaper l’Humanité is calling on the government and Mr. Drahi to account for his use of taxpayer-funded CICE aid. The paper demands the Hollande government to disclose exactly how much Altice’s SFR has received from the program.

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Unemployment office in Connecticut

Altice continues to claim the job cuts will be voluntary — a suggestion scoffed at by employee unions in both France and Portugal, where Altice operates telecommunications companies. In addition to asking Altice-owned Suddenlink and Cablevision employees whether the recent sudden separation from their paychecks was voluntary, unions claim they have the benefit of past experience.

“When they say ‘no job cuts’ and 1,200 have already been cut over the past 18 months, how can we trust them?” asked Frederic Retourney, a spokesman for the CGT-FAPT employee union. “We know that voluntary redundancies are made under duress in most cases. When SFR announces 5,000 job cuts when there are 14,400 employees at the company now, we do not see how one can speak of voluntary departures.”

The job cuts at Altice’s U.S. operations — Suddenlink and Cablevision — have just begun. In a filing with the Connecticut Department of Labor, Altice disclosed it is issuing a total of 587 termination notices in that state — 482 call center workers in Shelton who will lose their jobs Nov. 1 and another 105 in Stratford leaving in two waves Oct. 14 and Dec. 15. Cablevision’s chief Connecticut competitor Frontier Communications is turning Altice’s lemons into Frontier’s lemonade by capitalizing on the job cuts with a quickly organized media push for a job fair on Aug. 31 in New Haven targeting the soon-to-be-former Cablevision workers.

Frontier will hold interviews for the former Altice call-center workers and field technicians. The alternative, if those former Cablevision workers still want to work for Altice, is to move to New York or New Jersey and hope their jobs don’t get cut again. With Frontier, they can stay in Connecticut.

madagascarAltice-owned SFR Francophone call center workers face even bigger challenges from relentless demands for cost cuts. In 2015, Altice announced it was open to relocating its Moroccan-based customer care call center to Madagascar, a large and severely economically depressed island nation off the eastern coast of southern Africa. Drahi, who told Wall Street he likes to pay as little as he can in salaries, is evidently upset labor costs in Morocco now force Altice to pay salaries up to €500 a month ($560). The company said it was open to seeking solace hiring French-fluent replacement workers in Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital city, where the average annual salary is $260. In contrast, Connecticut call center workers make an average of $14.80/hour, according to Indeed.

Connecticut State Rep. Laura Hoydick (R-Stratford) acknowledges employee life with Altice in charge of Cablevision may be a tough ride.

“Having gone through unemployment with family members — and now me — emphasizes how the Cablevision employees are nervous for their livelihood and existence,” Hoydick told The Hour. “I thought it was great that the Frontier folks saw that there was an already-trained workforce here in Connecticut.”

Other state Republicans are attempting to blame Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy for Cablevision’s job cuts, characterizing them as evidence employers are fleeing the high taxes and expenses associated with running a business in Connecticut.

“People are making a choice: ‘Do I stay in Connecticut and weather the storm, or do I move out of the state?’” said state Rep. Jason Perillo (R-Shelton).

lexpressFor now, those decisions are mostly made by Altice’s cable company call center workers and some members of middle management. But Patrick Drahi’s long-term plan to conquer the media business depends on implementing his “convergence” strategy, which means owning and controlling not only the means of distribution, but also the product being distributed. l’Humanité compared Drahi’s business to a multibillion cephalopod, with octopus-like tentacles extending his control and influence well beyond the cable business.

In France, he is accomplishing his mission by buying up cable networks, newspapers, and other media outlets which he packages together. Now a customer doesn’t just buy cable TV — he buys TV, internet, phone, the daily newspaper, and magazines for one flat price. For about $22 a month, SFR customers get unlimited digital access to 17 newspapers and magazines including Libération, l’Express, and l’Expansion. Then you can watch Drahi’s new sports channels and local news channel — all owned by Altice. Drahi told the French Senate his new bundled media model could “save the press.” But dig a little deeper and you discover Drahi’s altruism is considerably more limited.

By bundling everything together, the Altice-owned businesses each enjoy the enormous benefit of having their products taxed at the special press VAT rate of 2.1%, down from the usual 20% that would be otherwise owed. Altice pockets the savings for itself — a considerable boost in gross revenue.

More conservative investors worry about how Altice is managing to pay for all of its acquisitions and still manage to cover its existing massive debt, especially as Drahi plots to bring his model to the United States. His goal in America: to create the largest or second-largest telecom company in the country. Worried shareholders have been placated by the news massive layoffs are in SFR’s future, with the cost-savings they bring. Those still not satisfied were quieted after Numericable, another Altice concern, borrowed almost two billion dollars and raided Altice’s treasury for another billion to finance a dividend payout to shareholders worth more than $2.5 billion. Of course, Mr. Drahi himself is among the top recipients.

WOW! Bringing Gigabit Speeds to Alabama, Indiana, Tennessee and Michigan

Phillip Dampier August 10, 2016 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, WOW! No Comments

wowWOW! Internet, Cable & Phone will unveil gigabit speed broadband across five U.S. cities by the end of this year.

In Evansville, Ind., and Auburn, Ala., WOW! will be the first provider in town delivering gigabit internet speeds to residents and businesses, with only a modem upgrade required to get faster service. In the wealthy community of Gross Pointe Shores, Mich., WOW! is bringing gigabit broadband over an expanding fiber to the home network. Customers in Knoxville, Tenn., and Huntsville, Ala. will also see faster speeds towards the end of this year.

WOW! provides competing cable service in 20 markets, primarily in the midwest and southeast, including IllinoisMichigan, Indiana, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, Alabama, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.

“In many of our markets, we are already offering the highest speeds available with our 600Mbps internet service,” said WOW! CEO Steven Cochran. “By enabling 1 Gig Internet over our existing coax plant and through our targeted fiber to the home investment, WOW! is demonstrating its commitment to continually innovate and deliver products that help our residential and business customers to connect.”

Charter Announces Further Time Warner Cable Upgrades Are On Hold Until 2017

Maxx is dead.

Maxx is dead.

Charter Communications executives told Wall Street analysts that Time Warner Cable’s upgrade program has been suspended, to be replaced with Charter’s own previously announced plan of upgrades and “simplified pricing” sometime in 2017.

Time Warner Cable was responsible for a lot of the capital expenditures underway at the combined Charter-TWC-Bright House venture just before the merger deal closed in May. Christopher L. Winfrey, Charter’s chief financial officer and executive vice president, told investors Time Warner was on a small spending binge, rushing in orders for new cable broadband technology to hurry Maxx upgrades to customers before Charter took over operations.

Winfrey eased Wall Street’s concerns about Time Warner Cable spending 21% of revenue on capital expenditures during the last quarter, promising the more modest upgrades forthcoming from Charter will allow for future spending reductions. More immediately, Winfrey reassured investors the days of Time Warner Cable’s aggressive Maxx upgrade effort was over.

“There is, obviously, the significant amount of all-digital activity that was continuing at TWC,” Winfrey told analysts. “And that will be largely put on hold as we put in the Charter all-digital strategy the beginning of next year.”

Charter plans to cancel upgrades that would have established multiple Time Warner Cable speed tiers ranging from 50-300Mbps. Instead, Charter will roll out two speed tiers to Time Warner Cable customers — 60Mbps for around $60 a month and 100Mbps for around $100 a month for broadband-only customers.

Rutledge

Rutledge

“In the fall, we will begin to rebrand Time Warner Cable and Bright House and launch our Spectrum pricing and packaging in a number of key markets totaling over 40% of our acquired passings with the remainder in the first half of 2017,” said Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge.

Customers in certain states — notably New York — will be able to keep their current Time Warner Cable package for several years. Customers in other states will be pushed harder to transition into Charter’s simplified tiers.

“In 2017, the all-digital project at Time Warner Cable and Bright House markets will use the Charter all-digital strategy, which uses fully functioning two-way set-top boxes with video on demand and advanced guide functionality on every TV outlet,” said Rutledge. “We expect the project to be completed by 2018. We will also extend our practice of performing electronic connections instead of physical truck rolls as we go all-digital, allowing us to fully scale our self-installation and self-service practices.”

Charter only advertises 60Mbps internet access to most customers on its website.

Charter only advertises 60Mbps internet access to most customers on its website.

“Our plan is to have Spectrum Guide available in most Legacy Charter markets by the end of this year,” added Rutledge, referring to the on-screen channel guide. “We will launch Spectrum Guide in TWC’s larger markets by the middle of 2017 and other TWC and Bright House markets following through the year and likely continuing through 2018 as we complete the all-digital project.”

Rutledge was critical of Time Warner Cable and Bright House’s myriad of service tiers and prices.

“Through different metrics and stages of development, we can see that TWC and more recently, Bright House had both become reliant on rate increases and retention offers, each of which has various short and long-term effects including encouraging customers to initiate more transactions,” Rutledge said. “We’ve addressed these types of issues at Legacy Charter and we’ll do so at TWC and Bright House during the Spectrum pricing and packaging migration.”

That means Charter intends to dramatically cut the number of service and pricing options and convince customers to stop switching to promotional offers that they eventually abandon when the promotion ends. Charter prefers stable prices for services and reducing the amount of customer retention packages they have to offer to price-sensitive customers. As prices reset and increase, increased call volumes results as customers negotiate for a better deal. Removing the incentive to negotiate is seen as a cost saving maneuver and keeps customers on Charter’s regular price packages longer.

The N.Y. Times Exposes Corporate-Backed Think Tanks

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly "independent" people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

Sock Puppets: Ostensibly “independent” people quietly on the payroll of Big Telecom companies and advocating their positions.

“Net Neutrality would not improve consumer welfare or protect the public interest,” came the considered view of one Jeffrey A. Eisenach, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee in September 2014. “The potential costs of Net Neutrality regulation are both sweeping and severe. It is best understood as an effort by one set of private interests to enrich itself by using the power of the state.”

Mr. Eisenach was introduced on the printed formal agenda as a “visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.” If one looked at a transcript of his written testimony, they would find he also co-served as “co-chair of NERA Economic Consulting’s Communications, Media and Internet Practice.” But his views could have effectively represented all the above and more.

The New York Times this week published a two-part article examining the thin lines between public policy scholars, lobbyists, researchers, advocates, corporations, and private citizens. It is an important piece that details the shady world of bought and paid for research, academia, corporate lawyers and lobbyists, and Washington lawmakers that too often accept what they are told without following the money.

On that September day back in 2014 Eisenach wanted his views to be attributed only to him.

Eisenach

Eisenach

“While I am here in my capacity as a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, the views I express are my own, should not be attributed to A.E.I. or to any of the organizations with which I am affiliated,” Eisenach told the Senate committee.

What was considerably less clear is the name of the client (or an affiliated trade organization) that has underwritten almost every one of a dozen studies he has published on internet-related issues from 2007-2016 — Verizon, the same company that shares his hostile views towards Net Neutrality.

Over the years, it has become difficult to tell whether Eisenach’s views, articles, and study findings are his own, those of his study sponsor, and/or those of his employer. Just tracking Eisenach’s ever-changing employment record was no easy task. In the fall of 2013, Eisenach was the director of the American Enterprise Institute’s new “Center on Media and Internet Policy.” Just a few months later, he joined NERA, one of the country’s oldest economic consultancy firms, as a senior vice president in its telecommunications practice.

From each of these positions, Eisenach can pen the views of some of America’s largest telecommunications companies under the guise of an “independent” study, an invaluable cover tool for a member of Congress confronted with voting on behalf of corporate friends at the cost of consumers in the district.

“A report authored by an academic is going to have more credibility in the eyes of the regulator who is reading it,” Michael J. Copps, a former FCC commissioner who is now a special adviser for the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, told the newspaper. “They are seeking to build credibility where none exists.”

A former Verizon employee who still does some consulting of his told the Times how the game is played.

aei“Let’s say you’re in legal and you want to have a paper that says what you want it to say,” said ex-Verizon economist Dennis Weller. “You could have a bunch of economists in house and ask them if they agree with you. How much easier would it be to go to an outside economist and say, ‘How about if I pay you $100,000 to write this?’”

With appropriate disclosure that a company like Verizon paid $100,000 for a report that exactly matches Verizon’s public policy agenda might raise questions on Capitol Hill as to its veracity and independence. If that disclosure goes missing or is hidden under a third-party like a trade association, a lawmaker might assume the report was produced independently and the strong corroboration of Verizon’s views is just a coincidence. That kind of credibility can be worth millions to any company confronting a debate over regulatory policy.

“[Eisenach] is good at linking big theoretical ideas to policy, and he’s been good at making money doing that,” added Weller. “He’s been good at moving from think tank to think tank and company to company, and I don’t think he’s ever lost money doing it.”

The New York Times investigation found while Eisenach testified before Congress ostensibly as a private citizen, he was also filing formal comments to the FCC as a “scholar” with the American Enterprise Institute, was meeting privately with FCC commissioners, organized public briefings that featured powerful senators like John Thune (R-S.D.), who happens to be the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee. That committee also has direct oversight over the FCC and has spent the last three years scrutinizing FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. Eisenach even briefed the two Republican FCC commissioners about what AEI’s general counsel had to say about Wheeler’s efforts to get Net Neutrality in place at the FCC. Eisenach offered both commissioners speaking time at AEI events, urging at least one of them to attack Net Neutrality.

“Net Neutrality is obviously top of mind,” he said in an email to that commissioner, Michael O’Rielly. “I’d be delighted if you would use the opportunity to lay out the case against.”

net_neutralityThe Times reported Eisenach was hardly alone opposing Net Neutrality. Just weeks after becoming chairman, Wheeler received a letter signed by more than a dozen prominent economists and scholars affiliated with various Washington think tanks or academic institutions. They wanted Wheeler to reject Net Neutrality regulations. The letter attempted to distance the signers from any corporate agenda, noting in a footnote that nobody was compensated for their signature on the letter.

On the other hand, of the dozen studies that were included or referenced in their letter as “evidence,” more than half were entirely funded by giant telecom companies that oppose Net Neutrality. Mr. Wheeler would need a magnifying glass and plenty of free time to ferret out the industry funding disclosures in those attached studies, which were buried in footnotes.

When the industry took the FCC to court over broadband regulation or Net Neutrality, it was more of the same. Verizon was successful opposing an earlier FCC rule on Net Neutrality by trotting out almost two dozen studies and declarations that opposed regulatory oversight — more than half sponsored entirely by the telecommunications companies or trade associations that despise Net Neutrality. Many other studies were written by think tanks and scholars that also had direct financial ties to the companies.

Litan

Litan

Another key factor in the debate about Net Neutrality was the cost of implementing it. Again, the incestuous ties between the telecom industry, think tanks, and academia would serve up the “right answers” for Big Telecom’s case against Neutrality when two economists issued a controversial “policy brief” that claimed Net Neutrality would cost $15 billion in new fees and retard broadband expansion and upgrades. (The $15 billion figure came under immediate ridicule by consumer groups that effectively suggested the study authors ‘made it up,’ a case that may have been proven to some degree when the authors suddenly revised it down to $11 billion.)

Robert Litan, then a senior fellow at Brookings and Hal Singer, who used to work at the Progressive Policy Institute, would quickly come under greater scrutiny than Eisenach, probably because their report became central to the industry’s battle against Net Neutrality. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) even built an advertising campaign against Net Neutrality around their study. Politicians opposed to Net Neutrality also regularly quoted from Litan and Singer’s findings to explain their strong opposition to the net policy.

Lost in the debate is who paid Mr. Litan and Mr. Singer for their work. Their employer, Economists Inc., yet another inside-the-Beltway consulting firm, didn’t exactly publicize their “select clients” included AT&T and Verizon — two of the largest opponents of Net Neutrality.

Using think tanks to bolster corporate lobbying has become so common, it has attracted the attention of some members of Congress.

Litan collided with one of the Senate’s fiercest consumer advocates and watchdogs — Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in a September 2015 hearing about a rules change fiercely opposed by investment bankers that would require financial advisers recommending retirement-associated investments to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own personal gain. Warren has championed the cause of ending high bank and investment-related fees that eat away investor returns. Some of the worst offenders convinced financial advisers to recommend their funds by kicking back large bonus commissions, which enriched the adviser and the investment bank but left seniors hit hard by lost potential earnings.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

Litan’s research questioned the potential benefits of upping ethical standards. He wrote the costs to the banking and investment community to implement the rules would far outweigh any benefits to investors. Litan casually mentioned his affiliation with Brookings, a think tank, to promote his research’s credibility. He didn’t call attention to the fact his 28-page study was produced for a client: Capital Group — a massive financial services company with $1.39 trillion in assets. It would be directly impacted by the imposition of the new rules, which it strongly opposed.

Capital Group paid Economists, Inc. $85,000 for the study. Litan’s cut of the action was $38,800 — or $1,386 per page.

Warren complained Litan was not exactly forthcoming in disclosing his personal gain and his ties to a major opponent of the new rules under consideration.

“These disclosures are problematic: they raise significant questions about the impartiality of the study and its conclusions, and about why a Brookings-affiliated expert is allowed to use that affiliation to lend credibility to work that is…editorially compromised,” Sen. Warren wrote in a letter to Brookings President Strobe Talbott.

The embarrassment to Brookings, which has increasingly relied on corporate-funded research to fund its work, led to rumors Litan was asked to leave, and he resigned shortly thereafter. Litan downplayed the event, calling it a “minor technical violation” of Brookings’ ethics policy, which prohibits those associated with the think tank from using their affiliation with Brookings in any research report or testimony.

The incident fueled consumer groups’ arguments that cozy arrangements between purportedly independent scholars and academics and corporate entities too often results in bought-and-paid-for- research not worth the paper it is printed on. A clear conflict of interest and the lack of prominent funding disclosures makes such reports suspect at best and worthless in many other cases, because no company paying for a report is going to make it public if it conflicts with their agenda.

Singer

Singer

Remarkably, other economists, many also engaged in producing reports for corporate clients, rushed to the defense of… Mr. Litan, calling his removal from Brookings the result of a witch hunt.

A letter signed by former Clinton economic advisers W. Bowman Cutter and Everett Ehrlich; Harvard University international trade and investment professor Robert Z. Lawrence; former Clinton chief budget economist Joseph Minarik; and former Clinton economic adviser Hal Singer, who co-authored the report that got Litan in hot water with Sen. Warren, claimed as a result of Litan’s forced resignation, critics of their reports could threaten the credibility of their work with an “ad hominem attack on any author who may be associated with an industry or interest whose views are contrary to [Sen. Warren].”

“Businesses sometimes finance policy research much as advocacy groups or other interests do,” the economists wrote. “A reader can question the source of the financing on all sides, but ultimately the quality of the work and the integrity of the author are paramount.”

Singer has since left the Progressive Policy Institute.

D.C.’s revolving door has also provided lucrative work for those out of government jobs and now working in the private sector, often lobbying those still in government.

Rep. Greg Walden (R-Ore.) had no problem introducing a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece into the Congressional Record written by Robert McDowell, who wears several hats at the Hudson Institute. He’s a “scholar,” a “telecommunications industry lawyer” at a firm retained by AT&T to fight Net Neutrality, and a lobbyist. If his name is familiar to you, that might be because McDowell used to be a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission from June 1, 2006 to May 17, 2013. Now he is paid to kill Net Neutrality for AT&T.

None of that seem to faze Walden or raise questions about the credibility of the opinion piece he sought to have added to the official record.

“Everyone’s got their point of view,” Walden said last year. “And some of them get paid to have that point of view.”

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