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Miss. Taxpayers Pay for “Sweetheart Deal” With AT&T; Competitive Bids and Public Scrutiny Prohibited

att loveAT&T couldn’t have gotten a better deal for itself if it tried.

Mississippi state officials that awarded AT&T a 10-year State Master Contract, compelling the majority of state government offices to do business only with AT&T, have just given the phone company an early two-year extension without allowing for any public discussion or competitive bidding.

In 2005, when the contract with AT&T was first signed, it was unlikely most government offices, schools, and libraries would be able to find any bidder other than AT&T. The state contract spells out a series of requirements that critics contend were tailor-written with the full knowledge only AT&T could offer the full menu of required services. Nearly 10 years later, and more than a year before the contract was up for renewal, the state suddenly granted AT&T a two-year contract extension, potentially exposing taxpayers to overpriced, taxpayer-funded broadband services.

Interested members of the public who want to examine the state contract for telecommunications with AT&T have run headlong into a roadblock erected by a Hinds County judge who ruled it was off-limits for public inspection and has since been sealed under court order. To this day, only government customers of Mississippi’s Department of Information Technology Services, the agency in charge of the state government’s broadband, are allowed to see the document.

Mississippi-welcomeThe state contract comes at a significant cost to taxpayers if Marvin Adams’ figures are correct. Adams, who works for the Columbia School District, suspects a lot of money has been frittered away because of the lack of competitive bidding. Only the state’s schools and libraries have the option of either securing a contract with AT&T or requesting bids from competitors like Ridgeland-based C-Spire, which supplies fiber and wireless connectivity.

Adams says AT&T’s contract with the state costs taxpayers $5 per Mbps. But AT&T also charges a “transport circuit charge” of between $10-45 per Mbps. Adams said his colleagues have seen competitive bids averaging $6 per Mbps and the transport circuit charge is included in that price.

The Mississippi Watchdog delivered the understatement of the year when it called AT&T’s contract with Mississippi “lucrative.” Attempts to modify the contract have met with fierce opposition in Jackson, the state capital. Senate Bill 2741, a modest measure that would have compelled school districts to seek competitive bids before signing a multi-year contract with a provider, died in committee earlier this year.

AT&T has close political ties in several southern states. The company co-authored an article with Gov. Phil Bryant and donated at least $42,500 to his various campaigns for political office. In 2012, Bryant signed a bill into law removing most of Mississippi’s remaining regulatory authority over AT&T.

Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant

Next door in Louisiana, Gov. Bobby Jindal also maintains close ties with AT&T. The company has funneled more than $250,000 to his wife’s charitable foundation – the Supriya Jindal Foundation for Louisiana’s Children, which also takes substantial contributions from oil and chemical companies, the insurance industry and defense contractors. The New York Times reported back in 2011 that telecom companies like AT&T were increasingly contributing to politically connected charities they could use in campaigns to influence legislation and regulation. Companies can write off their unlimited charitable giving while politicians take credit for the work done by the non-profit groups while also quietly understanding exactly where the money is coming from.

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Omitted from AT&T’s GigaPower Fiber to the Press Release: 1Gbps for 1%, <100Mbps for 99%

Phillip Dampier July 24, 2014 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News No Comments
Notice the word "may"

AT&T’s Fiber Fairy Tale

Holding your breath waiting for AT&T’s GigaPower 1Gbps U-verse upgrade to arrive in a town near you is hazardous to your health.

Despite a blizzard of press releases promoting the forthcoming arrival of gigabit Internet access from AT&T, the fine print reveals as little as one percent of some communities will actually get the upgrades.

In Winston-Salem, N.C., city officials cannot even get a firm commitment from AT&T that it will deliver the faster service to the 63 businesses the city chose as early candidates for the fiber upgrade.

In June, the city and AT&T signed an agreement for gigabit broadband expansion using AT&T’s GigaPower U-verse platform. But AT&T largely gets to decide where, when and even if it will invest in upgraded service. The city did not impose many conditions beyond a requirement that AT&T provide up to 20 free Internet connections to community sites with a one-time installation cost of $300 to $500. Another 20 connections would be provided to small to mid-size businesses, with no obligation to buy services.

In response, AT&T said it would only commit to reviewing the city’s list and “make an effort to serve the proposed locations if they are in the vicinity of where service will be available.”

If those locations fall outside of AT&T’s plans, no gigabit fiber.

A significant indicator of the true extent of AT&T’s expansion plans is whether the company is allocating capital spending commensurate with the costs of running fiber optic cable to individual homes and businesses. So far, AT&T has not. With no obligation to deliver the service AT&T is implying it will offer, the company is free to wire a handful of technology parks, businesses, and new housing developments and claim to have met its commitment, despite the fact 99 percent of area residents have no access to the faster speeds.

For the benefit of low-income residents who lack affordable Internet access, AT&T also promised it would offer some lower-speed Internet connections in a limited number of apartment complexes in low-income areas.
Here are the sites nominated by the city of Winston-Salem for AT&T gigabit broadband. AT&T’s response: ‘Maybe.’

Community sites: Aids Care Service; Boys & Girls Clubs at New Walkertown Road and Reynolds Park; Brown & Douglas Neighborhood Center; Russell Recreation Center; Liberty CDC; Community Care Center; ElBuen Pastor; Forsyth Technical Community College’s Woodruff Center; Gateway YWCA; Knollwood Baptist Church; Little Creek Neighborhood Center; Malloy/Jordan East Winston Heritage Center; MLK Jr. Center; Reynolda Branch library; S.G. Atkins CDC; SciWorks; Sedge Garden Center; Shepherd’s Center; South Fork Center; Southside Library; United Metropolitan Church; Winston Lake YMCA.

Small- to mid-size businesses: Bellomy Research; Campus Partners; Carolina Liquid Chemistries Corp.; Center for Design Innovation; CML Microcircuits (USA); Computer Credit Inc.; Computing Solutions Group Inc.; COR365 Innovation Solutions; Dairy Fresh Inc.; DataChambers LLC; Davenport Transportation Consulting; Debbie’s Staffing Service; Eastridge Technology Inc.; Exhibit Works; Flywheel; IMG College; Interact 911; KeraNetics LLC; Key Services Inc.; Kings Plaza; MissionMode; Ocular Systems; Odigia; OnceLogix LLC; Out of Our Minds Animation Studios Inc.; Page’s Sporting Goods; PhoneTree; Piedmont Propulsion; Segmented Marketing Solutions Inc.; Small Footprint Inc.; SolidSpace LLC; Special Event Services; Sunrise Technologies Inc.; The Clearing House Payment Center; Triad Semiconductor; TrueLook; Voyss Solutions; Washington Perk site at Washington Park; West 3rd Street Media; West End Mill Works.

Source: City of Winston-Salem

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Comcast/Time Warner Claim Their Rates, Walk-In Locations, and Merger Plans Are Off Limits to the Public

topsecretComcast and Time Warner Cable want New York State regulators to believe disclosing the locations of their customer care centers, revealing the prices they are charging, and describing exactly what Comcast will do to Time Warner Cable employees and customers post-merger are all protected trade secrets that cannot be disclosed to the general public.

New York Administrative Law Judge David L. Prestemon found scant evidence to support many of the claims made by the two cable companies to keep even publicly available information confidential, despite an argument that disclosure of the “trade secrets” would cause substantial competitive injury. His ruling came in response to a detailed Freedom of Information Law request from New York’s Utility Project which, like Stop the Cap!, is having major problems attempting to find any public interest benefits for the merger of the two cable companies.

The information Comcast and Time Warner Cable want to keep off-limits is vast, including the prices the companies charge for service, their licensed franchise areas, the locations of their call centers and walk-in customer care locations, and what exactly Time Warner Cable is doing with New York taxpayer money as part of the state’s rural broadband expansion program:

“In general, the redacted trade secret information and the Exhibits identified below include, without limitation, information and details concerning (i) the current operations and future business plans of the Companies, (ii) strategic information concerning their products and services, (iii) strategic investment plans, (iv) customer and service location information, and (v) performance data. This highly sensitive information has not been publicly disclosed and is not expected to be known by others. Moreover, given the highly competitive nature of the industries in which Comcast and Time Warner Cable compete, disclosure of these trade secrets would cause substantial injury to the Companies’ competitive positions– particularly since the Companies do not possess reciprocal information about their competitors.”

That’s laughable, declares the Public Utility Law Project.

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

Norlander (Photo: Dan Barton)

“The ‘competition’ for TV, broadband, and phone business in New York generally boils down to a duopoly (phone company or cable ) or at best oligopoly (maybe phone and cable companies plus Dish or wireless), in which  providers are probably able to deduce who has the other customers and likely know, due to interconnection and traffic activity, what their ‘rivals’ are doing,” said Gerald Norlander, who is aggressively fighting the merger on behalf of the Public Utility Project.

Stop the Cap! wholeheartedly agrees and told regulators at the Public Service Commission’s informational meeting held last month in Buffalo that Comcast’s promised merger benefits are uniformly vague and lack specifics. Now we understand why. The public does not have a right to know what Comcast’s plans are.

“When it comes to divulging their actual performance and actual intentions regarding matters affecting the public interest, such as Internet service to schools, extension of rural broadband, service quality performance, jobs in the state, universal service, and so forth, well, that is all a ‘trade secret’ justified by nonexistent competition,” said Norlander. “Thus, the situation remains the same, there is insufficient available evidence to conclude that the putative incremental benefits of the merger outweigh its risks.”

Here is a list of what Comcast and Time Warner Cable believe is none of your business. Judge Prestemon’s rulings, announced this morning, follow. He obviously disagrees. But his decisions can be appealed by either company:

  • nyup“Details of Time Warner Cable’s current broadband deployment plans in New York. In particular, the information contains the specific details about such plans, including the franchise area, county, total miles of deployment, number of premises passed and the completion or planned completion date. Such information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information regarding the Companies’ promotional rates for service in various locations within their respective footprints – as well as competitive intelligence concerning competitor offerings. This compilation and competitive analysis are not publicly available.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “specific details of Time Warner Cable’s current build-out plans to rural areas of New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area. The information also contains anticipated financial expenditures for Time Warner Cable’s build-out plans. Such information has not been publicly disclosed.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the New York schools and libraries served by Time Warner Cable, as well as information concerning Comcast’s future business plans to serve such entities. This information is kept confidential by Time Warner Cable and has not been disclosed to the public.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the number of Comcast’s “Internet Essentials” customers in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans for the “Internet Essentials” program.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “the Companies’ detailed customer and service quality data.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ current operations and staffing levels in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans concerning post-merger operations and employee levels.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast-Logo“information setting forth the number of subscribers to Time Warner Cable’s “Everyday Low Price” broadband service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • Comcast’s handling of customer requests for an unlisted service, and how Comcast handles customer inquiries related to this subject matter.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “Comcast’s future business plans with respect to particular subject matters.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information and performance statistics relating to the Companies’ call centers in New York and the Northeast.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s operations as they relate to projects funded by federal or state [energy efficiency or distributed energy resource] programs.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s operations and future business plans relating to avoidance of truck rolls and vehicle fleets.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information relating to the number of Wi-Fi hotspots that Time Warner Cable has deployed in New York, as well as Comcast’s future business plans in this area.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Comcast’s handling of cyber-security issues associated with its Xfinity Home service.” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning the Companies’ operations and customers in relation to cellular backhaul service.” (ruled for Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “information concerning Time Warner Cable’s projects funded by NYSERDA” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
  • “projects developed in conjunction with New York State” (ruled against Comcast/Time Warner Cable)
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Time Warner Cable Promises Possible 1Gbps Upgrade for Los Angeles by 2016

gigabitAssuming Comcast doesn’t take over Time Warner Cable and change priorities, the city of Los Angeles is getting a commitment Time Warner will “be in a position to offer” gigabit broadband speeds to homes and businesses in the city no later than 2016.

“Over the last four years, Time Warner Cable has invested more than $1.5 billion to enhance our infrastructure and services in Los Angeles. This significant investment coupled with new ‘Gigasphere’ technology positions us to be able to introduce gigabit-per-second speeds in 2016,” said Peter Stern, executive vice president and chief strategy, people and corporate development officer at TWC. “Leveraging our existing network allows us to deliver these speeds faster and with less disruption than any other provider.”

The new gigabit broadband service will be deployable with an upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 technology, which offers cable operators a more efficient way to deliver broadband over current cable system infrastructure.

“We believe the introduction of consumer gigabit speeds in our near future will facilitate even greater innovations among students, entrepreneurs and many industries powering the Los Angeles economy,” said Dinni Jain, chief operating officer at TWC. “Cable was the first to bring broadband Internet to the masses nearly 20 years ago, and thanks to the dynamic nature of our fiber-rich network, we foresee endless new possibilities as we roll-out gigabit speeds to all of Los Angeles.”

twcmaxThe first Gigasphere pilot test will begin sometime next year. But a Comcast takeover could shift priorities away from offering the kinds of broadband speeds Time Warner is providing under its TWC Maxx upgrade program. Time Warner’s Internet speeds in upgraded areas are now substantially faster and cheaper than what Comcast offers in its service areas. Comcast could decide to retire the broadband upgrade program altogether and settle on offering speeds comparable to what it already sells across much of its national footprint.

Comcast is also readying a return to usage caps and overlimit fees, with no options for unlimited service, in several test markets.

But there are some caveats on Time Warner’s side as well.

Time Warner’s careful language suggests the company may be technologically capable of providing gigabit speeds but isn’t absolutely committing to offer those speeds anytime soon. Time Warner will not complete Maxx upgrades in Los Angeles until the end of this year, and the company has made no announcements about further expanding Maxx upgrades to other cities. No pricing details were available.

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GCI – Alaska’s Outrageous Internet Overcharger; Customers Paying Up to $1,200 in Overlimit Fees

GCI_logoNearly 10 percent of GCI’s revenue is now earned from overlimit fees collected from Alaskan broadband customers who exceed their cable or wireless usage limits.

GCI is Alaska’s largest cable operator and for many it is the only provider able to deliver stable speeds of 10Mbps+, especially to those who live too far away for comparable DSL speeds from ACS, one of GCI’s largest competitors.

The result has given GCI a de facto monopoly on High Speed Internet (10+ Mbps) access, a position that has allowed the company to dramatically raise prices and slap usage limits on broadband users and charge onerous overlimit fees on those who exceed their allowance.

GCI already charges some of the highest broadband service prices in the country and has insisted on imposing usage caps and overlimit fees on even its most expensive plans, creating high profits for them and enormous bills for customers who have no reliable way to consistently track their usage. GCI’s suspect usage meter is often offline and often delivers usage estimates that customers insist are far from accurate. GCI says it has the last word on the accuracy of that meter and has not submitted its meter to independent testing and verification by a local or state regulatory body specializing in measurement accuracy.

GCI also makes it extremely difficult for customers to understand what happens after customers exceed their usage limits. The website only vaguely offers that overlimit fees vary from “$.001 (half penny) to $.03 (three cents) per MB,” which is factually inaccurate: $.001 does not equal a half-penny. It can equal bill shock if a customer happens to be watching a Netflix movie when their allowance runs out.

KC D’Onfro of Bethel subscribes to GCI’s Alaska Extreme Internet plan, which in February cost $100 a month for 4/1Mbps service with a 25GB usage cap. While that allowance is plenty for the countless e-mails GCI promises you can send, any sort of streaming video can chew through that allowance quickly.

Business Insider explains what happened:

One fateful night, she and her roommate decided to watch a movie on Netflix. Both of them fell asleep halfway through, but the movie played ’til the end, eating up two GBs of data too many and consequently doubling their bill for that month. (One hour of HD video on Netflix can use up to 2.3 GB of data.)

“Now, I don’t even consider Netflix until near the very end of the month, and I have to be sure that I’m no more than three-fourths of the way into my total data, at the absolute most,” KC says. (Her provider, a company called GCI, allows subscribers to view their daily usage and sends them a notice when they’ve hit 80%.) “It’s a very serious business – I have to poll people to figure out what that one very special movie should be.”

That left the D’Onfro family with a $200 broadband bill – $100 for the service and an extra $100 overlimit fee for that single Netflix movie. Today, GCI demands $114.99 a month for that same plan (with the same usage allowance) and those not subscribing to their TV service also face a monthly $11.99 “access fee” surcharge for Internet-only service.

expensive

“Many Alaska consumers have brought their GCI broadband bills to ACS for a comparative quote, providing dozens of examples of GCI overage charges,” said Caitlin McDiffett, product manager of Alaska Communications Systems (ACS), the state’s largest landline phone company. “Many of these examples include overage charges of $200 to $600 in a single month. In one instance, a customer was charged $1 ,200 in overage fees.”

GCI also keeps most customers in place with a 24-month contract, making it difficult and costly to switch providers.

McDiffett told the FCC the average Alaskan with a Netflix subscription must pay for at least a 12Mbps connection to get the 60GB usage allowance they will need to watch more than two Netflix movies a week in addition to other typical online activities. GCI makes sure that costs average Alaskans real money.

“A customer purchasing 12Mbps for standalone (non-bundled) Home Internet from GCI pays $59.99 per month plus an $11.99 monthly “access” fee for a total of $71.98 per month with a 60GB usage limit ($0.004/MB overage charge),” reports McDiffett. “Thus, the monthly bill for this service is more typically $76.98, including a $5.00 overage charge. To purchase a service with a usage limit of at least 100GB per month, a GCI customer would have to pay $81.98 per month (the $69.99 standalone rate plus $11.99 monthly access fee), subject to an overage charge of $0.003/MB.”

Rural Alaskans pay even more on GCS' expensive wireless ISP.

Rural Alaskans pay even more when using GCI’s expensive wireless ISP.

Regular Alaskan Stop the Cap! reader Scott reports that no matter what plan you choose from GCI, they are waiting and ready to slap overlimit fees on you as soon as they decide you are over your limit.

Their super-deluxe re:D service — up to 200Mbps, now available in Anchorage, MatSu, Fairbanks, Juneau, Kenai, Ketchikan, Sitka, and Soldotna areas, is not cheap.

“It’s a whopping $209.99 + taxes, and if you don’t have cable TV service bundled, the $11.99 monthly access fee also applies,” Scott says.

For that kind of money, one might expect a respite from the usage meter,  but not with GCI.

“As a top tier service, you’d think they could just offer it as ’unlimited’ at that rate,” Scott says. “Actually, it has a 500GB usage cap and $.50/GB overage fee. Again, we have a metering provider who claims the overages were to penalize bandwidth hogs, yet then offer [faster] service, increasing overall load on their network, instead of just offering a fair amount of bandwidth per customer and eliminating overages by offering unlimited usage.”

One of ACS' strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn't available to everyone.

One of ACS’ strong selling points is no data caps, but DSL isn’t available to everyone.

In a filing with the FCC, ACS’ McDiffett suspects usage caps are all about the money.

“GCI reported 2012 Home Internet revenue of $86 million of which $7.9 million (nearly ten percent) was derived from overage charges,” said McDiffett. “On average, about $5 per customer per month can be attributed to GCI overage charges. GCI imposes usage limits or data caps at every level of Home Internet service, from its 10 Mbps service (10GB limit, $0.005/MB overage charge) to its 100 Mbps service (500GB limit, $0.0005/MB overage charge).”

badbillOver time, and after several cases of bill shock, Alaskan Internet customers have become more careful about watching everything they do online, fearing GCI’s penalties. That threatens GCI’s overlimit revenue, and now Stop the Cap! readers report sudden, long-lasting problems with GCI’s usage checker, often followed by substantial bills with steep overlimit penalties they claim just are not accurate.

“I currently pay $184.99 a month for GCI‘s highest offered broadband service. 200/5Mbps, with a 500GB monthly data cap,” shares Stop the Cap! reader Luke Benson. “According to GCI, over the past couple months our usage has increased resulting in overage charges at $1.00 a GB.”

In May, Benson was billed $130 in overlimit fees, but after complaining, the company finally agreed to credit back $100. A month later, they recaptured $60 of that credit from new overlimit fees. This month, Benson would have to unplug his modem halfway through his billing cycle or face another $50 in penalties.

GCI’s bandwidth monitor has proved less than helpful, either because it is offline or reports no usage according to several readers reaching out to us. GCI’s own technical support team notes the meter will not report usage until at least 72 hours after it occurs. GCI itself does not rely on its online usage monitor for customer billing. Customer Internet charges are measured, calculated, and applied by an internal billing system off-limits for public inspection.

“I have reached out to GCI multiple times asking for help, suggestions, resolution,” complains Benson. “All I get told is to turn down the viewing quality of Netflix, don’t allow devices to auto update, etc. They pretty much blamed every service but their own.”

Other customers have unwittingly fallen into GCI’s overlimit fee trap while running popular Internet applications that wouldn’t exist if GCI’s caps and overlimit fees were common across the country. Lifelong Bethel resident and tech consultant John Wallace knows the local horror stories:

  • tollsTwo girls had unwittingly allowed Dropbox to continuously sync to their computers, racking up a $3,500 overcharge in two weeks;
  • One user’s virus protection updater got stuck on and it cost him $600;
  • Wallace has heard people say, “I was gaming and I got a little out of hand and I had to pay $2,800;”
  • Two six-year-old girls ran up $2,000 playing an online preschool game. Mom was totally unaware of what was going on, until she got the bill.

GCI’s own Facebook page was the home of a number of customer complaints until the complaint messages mysteriously disappeared. Stop the Cap! itself discovered it was not allowed to even ask questions on the company’s social media pages, apparently already on their banned list.

While GCI does well for itself and its shareholders, Wallace worries about the impact GCI’s control of the Alaskan Internet High Speed Internet market will have on the economy and Alaskan society.

“It’s about equal access and opportunity,” Wallace told Business Insider. “The Internet was meant to improve the lives of people in rural Alaska, but – because of the data caps and the sky-high overage fees – it ends up costing them huge amounts of money. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation, and some of the highest rates of suicide, sexual assault, and drug abuse. The people who can’t afford it are the ones that are getting victimized.  It was supposed to bring access – true availability of goods and services – but it really just brought a huge bill that many can’t afford.”

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New York Public Service Commission Announces Delay in Comcast/TWC Merger Consideration

comcast twcAs more than 2,300 New Yorkers express fierce opposition to the merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable, the New York Public Service Commission has announced a delay in the review of the proposal until October.

The PSC now expects to consider the matter at a meeting to be held October 2. The PSC is also extending the period for the public to comment on the proposed merger.

Your comments are now due no later than Aug. 8, with reply comments from various parties due no later than Aug. 25.

Your input is vital, so please take a few moments to send an e-mail to the PSC with your views.

Here’s an example of one of the letters we are seeing:

Via e-mail: [email protected]
Honorable Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary
New York State Public Service Commission
Three Empire State Plaza
Albany, NY 12223

Re: 14-M-0183 – Joint Petition of Time Warner Cable and Comcast for Approval of a Holding Company Level Transfer of Control

Dear Secretary Burgess:

As a resident of this state, who is a customer of Time Warner Cable, I am writing to express my staunch opposition to the above-referenced joint petition. This application should be denied outright, simply put, because the merger of Comcast, the nation’s largest cable company, and Time Warner Cable, the nation’s second largest company, would be contrary to the interest of consumers in the State of New York, as well as antitrust laws.

Though executives of both applicants are adamant that this proposed merger would benefit consumers and enhance competition, the ominous, far-reaching implications that will undoubtedly follow render these claims, among others, implausible. That is, if this merger were to take place, a virtual monopoly would be created, giving Comcast unprecedented control over cable and broadband internet networks at the expense of not only consumers, who would receive nothing but fewer choices at higher prices, but also rival businesses, whose viability would certainly be stifled. The proposed merger would likewise pose a threat to net neutrality.

Given the abysmal record of Comcast, which includes being fined for failing to comply with the terms and conditions of its previous and similarly controversial merger with NBC Universal, as well as its political clout, it is clear that the approval of this joint petition would both be inconsistent with the mission of this Commission, as as well as the interest of consumers in this state. It should, accordingly, be denied in its entirety.

Respectfully submitted,
Patrick A. Berry
Volunteer, Common Cause New York

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I Love You Comcast! An Amazing 180 for Former Antitrust Attorney David Balto

Phillip "I got whiplash just watching" Dampier

Phillip “I got whiplash just watching” Dampier

A former policy director at the Federal Trade Commission and antitrust attorney at the U.S. Justice Department has managed an impressive 180 in just a few short months regarding the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast.

In February, David Balto told TheDeal the proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable “is a bad deal for consumers.” Today, Mr. Balto’s panoply of guest editorials, media appearances and columns — suddenly in favor of the merger — are turning up in the New York Times, the Orlando Sentinel, Marketplace, WNYC Radio, and elsewhere.

Balto’s arguments are based on “research” which, in toto, appears to have been limited to thumbing through Comcast’s press releases and merger presentation. That was enough:

First, this deal should create benefits for Time Warner customers, who will gain a significantly faster Internet and more advanced television service.

Second, competition is increasing in both the pay-TV and broadband businesses. Ninety-eight percent of viewers have a choice of three or more multichannel services, plus growing options online. Yahoo just announced a new video service, joining Netflix, Amazon and YouTube. In the last five years, cable has lost about seven million customers, satellite has gained nearly two million, and the telecommunications companies have gained six million.

Third, Comcast’s post-merger share of broadband falls closer to 20 percent when including LTE wireless and satellite providers. Over all, 97 percent of households have at least two competing fixed broadband providers — three or more if mobile wireless is included.

We used to wonder why government officials and regulators were so easily fooled by the corporate government relations people sent into their offices armed with press releases, talking points, cupcakes, and empty promises. We understand everyone isn’t a Big Telecom expert, but too often regulators’ reflexive acceptance of whatever companies bring to their table threatens to win them rube-status. We’d like to think Mr. Balto isn’t Comcast’s sucker, and we certainly hope there are no unspoken incentives on the table in return for his recent, very sudden conversion to celebrate all-things Comcast. Maybe he’s simply uninformed.

Balto

Balto

Although our regular readers — nearly all consumers and customers — are well-equipped to debunk Mr. Balto’s arguments, for the benefit of visitors, here is our own research.

First, Comcast’s Internet service is not faster than Time Warner Cable. Mr. Balto needs to spend some time away from Comcast’s merger info-pack and do some real research. He’ll find Time Warner Cable embarked on a massive upgrade program called TWC Maxx that is more than tripling broadband speeds for customers at no extra charge. Those speeds are faster than what Comcast offers the average residential customer, and come much cheaper as well. Oh, and TWC has no compulsory usage limits and overlimit penalties. Comcast’s David Cohen predicts every Comcast customer will face both within five years.

Second, that “advanced TV platform” Balto raves about requires a $99 installation fee… for an X1 set-top box. It also means equipment must be attached to every television in the house, because Comcast encrypts everything. At a time when customers want to pay for fewer channels, Comcast wants to shovel even more unwanted programming and boxes at customers. Older Americans who want their Turner Classic Movies have another nasty surprise. They will need to buy Comcast’s super deluxe cable TV package to get that network, at a cost exceeding $80 a month just for television. Ask Time Warner customers what they want, and they’ll tell you they’d prefer old and decrepit over an even higher cable TV bill Comcast has already committed to deliver.

Has competition truly increased? Not in the eyes of most Americans who at best face a duopoly and annual rate hikes well in excess of inflation. Even worse, for most consumers there is only one choice for 21st century High Speed Internet service – the cable company. Mr. Balto conveniently ignores the fact cable’s primary competitor is still DSL which is simply not available at speeds of 30+Mbps for most consumers. In some areas, like suburban Rochester, N.Y., the best the local phone company can deliver some neighborhoods like ours is 3.1Mbps. That isn’t competition. Verizon and AT&T have both stopped expanding DSL. Verizon has ended FiOS expansion and AT&T’s U-verse still maxes out at around 24Mbps for most customers. AT&T’s promised fiber upgrades have proven to be more illusory than reality, available primarily in a handful of multi-dwelling units and new housing developments. In rural areas, both major phone companies are petitioning to do away with landline service and DSL altogether.

Raise your hands if you want Comcast’s “benefits.” In New York, out of 2,300 comments before the PSC, we can’t find a single one clamoring for Comcast’s takeover. The public has spoken.

Cable "competition" in Minneapolis

Cable “competition” in Minneapolis. Charter and Comcast have also teamed up to trade cable territories as part of the Time Warner Cable merger package deal.

Satellite television’s days of providing the cable industry with robust competition have long since peaked. AT&T is seeking to further reduce that competition by purchasing DirecTV, not because it believes in satellite television, but because it wants the benefits of DirecTV’s lucrative volume discounts.

Any antitrust attorney worth his salt should be well aware of what kind of impact volume discounting can have on restraining and discouraging competition. Comcast’s deal for Time Warner will let it acquire programming at a substantial discount (one they have already said won’t be passed on to customers) so significant that any would-be competitors would be in immediate financial peril trying to compete on price.

Frontier Communications learned that lesson when it acquired a handful of Verizon FiOS franchises in Indiana and the Pacific Northwest. After losing Verizon’s volume discounts, Frontier was so alarmed by the wholesale renewal rates it received, it let loose its telemarketing force to convince customers fiber was no good for television and they should instead switch to a satellite provider they partnered with. It’s telling when a company is willing to forfeit revenue in favor of a third party marketing agreement with an outside company.

So what does this mean for a potential start-up looking to get into the business? Since programming is now a commodity, most customers buy on price. The best triple-play deals will go to the biggest national players with volume discounts – all cable operators that have long agreed never to compete directly with each other.

In the Orlando Sentinel, Mr. Balto seemed almost relieved when he concluded Comcast and Time Warner don’t compete head-to-head, somehow easing any antitrust concerns. It is precisely that fact why this deal must never be approved. Comcast has been free to compete anywhere Time Warner provides service, but has never done so. Letting Comcast, which has even worse approval ratings than Time Warner, become the only choice for cable broadband is hardly in the public interest and does nothing for competition. Instead, it only further consolidates the marketplace into a handful of giant companies that can raise prices and cap usage without restraint.

If Mr. Balto truly believes AT&T and Verizon will ride to the rescue with robust wireless broadband competition, his credibility is in peril. Those two companies, among others, are completely incapable of meeting the growing broadband demands (20-50GB) of the home user. With punishing high prices and staggeringly low usage caps, providers are both controlling demand and profiting handsomely from rationing service at the same time. Why change that?

No 3G/4G network under current ordinary traffic loads can honestly deliver a better online experience than DSL, and customers who attempt to replace their home broadband connection in favor of wireless will likely receive a punishing bill for the attempt at the end of the month. The only players who want to count mobile broadband as a serious competitor in the home broadband market are the cable and phone companies desperately looking for a defense against charges they have a broadband monopoly or are part of a comfortable duopoly.

One last point, while Mr. Balto seems impressed that Comcast would continue to voluntarily abide by the Net Neutrality policies he personally opposes, he conveniently omits the fact Comcast was the country’s biggest violator of Net Neutrality when it speed limited peer-to-peer traffic, successfully sued the government over Net Neutrality after it was fined by the FCC for the aforementioned violation, and only agreed to temporarily observe Net Neutrality as part of its colossal merger deal with NBCUniversal. It’s akin to a mugger promising to never commit another crime after being caught red-handed stealing. A commitment like that might be good enough for Mr. Balto, but it isn’t for us.

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Not Only Was Comcast’s Customer Retentions Guy Annoying, He Was Also Factually Wrong

astound-broadband-logoNearly two million people have listened to the Comcast customer service call from hell since it went viral earlier this week.

Comcast quickly decided it was best to apologize:

We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives. We are investigating this situation and will take quick action. While the overwhelming majority of our employees work very hard to do the right thing every day, we are using this very unfortunate experience to reinforce how important it is to always treat our customers with the utmost respect.

csrSetting aside all that, we decided to investigate why Mr. Block was willing to subject himself to 18 minutes of phone hell to cancel his service.

At one point, we learn he is switching to Astound, a provider of cable TV, broadband internet, and telephone services on the West Coast, serving over 325,000 residential and business customers within communities in the San Francisco Bay area. Astound is an overbuilder, which means it is one of those rare instances where Comcast faces head to head competition with a company that can deliver more than DSL.

Although Comcast’s rep swore Comcast had the fastest Internet speeds (it doesn’t) and can deliver maximum savings (also wrong), it turns out Astound offers both cheaper and faster Internet service. We’d probably switch too, although we wish Astound would dump its 1TB monthly usage cap. How many customers even come close to that isn’t known, but it is likely under 1%, which makes us wonder why they bother with a cap at all?

We collected pricing information from both Astound and Comcast’s websites and here is what we found:

Stop the Cap! will include this incident in our formal filings with the FCC and New York State Public Service Commission in opposition to the merger of Time Warner Cable and Comcast. Comcast customers tell us Mr. Block’s experiences, although extreme, are not uncommon when dealing with Comcast’s customer retention department.

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Canceling Comcast Is Like a Bad Breakup – Listen and Cringe As Comcast Desperately Begs You to Stay

Comcast-LogoDo you remember that high school love that killed you when they decided it was time to move on? You begged, you pleaded for them to change their mind to no avail. Nothing you said made any difference.

Some people never get over that teenage tragedy… and then they go to work for Comcast’s customer retention department indefatigably browbeating departing customers in a misguided effort to salvage damaged relationships with the cable company.

Stop the Cap! reader Bryan shares with us several minutes of the Block family’s life they’ll never get back. After 10 minutes on the phone repeatedly requesting to cancel Comcast service, Block and his wife decided to record the ongoing absurdity to share with the world. The result is eight more minutes of cringing embarrassment as an increasingly exasperated retention representative repeatedly demands to know why they want to leave.

never leaveIt all sounds like eavesdropping on your roommate’s breakup with their boyfriend. Or leaving a cult. This guy just can’t understand what the heck you were thinking when you decided Comcast was no longer right for you. Block was in no mood to explain himself, but for the benefit of others, we’d love to arm you with a few reasons to explain why you don’t want anything more to do with Comcast:

“Being that we are the number one provider of Internet and TV service in the entire country, why is that you are not wanting to have the number one rated Internet service available,” the retention rep demanded to know.

Our answer: Because you want to cap our broadband experience, you charge outrageous prices for renting a cable modem, and your speed claims mean nothing if we don’t actually get those speeds because of yet another outage or service problem.

“So you’re not interested in the fastest Internet in the country,” Comcast’s rep asks.

Our answers: Sure I am, which is why I am switching to the fiber competitor that delivers those speeds -0r- Not if you are putting a usage cap on me. Who wants a Ferrari they are told can’t be driven beyond the block?

“You don’t want something that works? …So why don’t you want something that’s good service and something that works,” asks Comcast’s rep.

Our answer: Do you actually subscribe to Comcast yourself? You guys didn’t win Worst Company in America honors for nothing.

“I’m really ashamed to see you go to something that can’t give you what we can,” argues the rep.

Our answer: That’s right. My long ongoing nightmare of bad service, high prices, and usage capped Internet is finally over. See ya.

If you really want Comcast to convince you to stay, tell them you want a permanent waiver in writing from any usage limits and/or overlimit fees. Demand aggressive discounts that deliver real savings, and never take their first offer. If they can waste 18 minutes of Ryan Block’s time, you can be just as ruthless when demanding a better deal for yourself.

As Ryan indicates, this retention representative is the perfect example of how Comcast won its reputation as one of most hated companies in America.

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Here’s How to Tell the N.Y. Public Service Commission to Reject the Comcast/TWC Merger

ny pscThe New York Public Service Commission needs to hear from you about the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger. Unlike some of the southern and midwestern states that have utility commissions that basically rubber stamp the agenda of Big Telecom companies, New York’s PSC has a reputation for being tougher and more customer-oriented. But the PSC cannot act in your interest if you don’t share your views.

It is incredibly easy to file your own comments with the PSC. Nearly 2,300 New Yorkers have done so thus far, but we need to make sure they understand our serious objections to Comcast’s usage caps, its expensive service, and customer abuse.

We have provided a sample letter below. We hope you will write your own, but offer ours as a guide that includes some of our biggest concerns. We may prepare another one soon outlining other concerns.

How to file your comment:

  • E-Mail: [email protected]
  • Mail: Hon. Kathleen H. Burgess, Secretary, Public Service Commission, Three Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York 12223-1350.
  • Phone: 1-800-335-2120 (press “1″ to leave a recorded comment)

All comments should refer to “Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.”

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

Re: Case 14-M-0183, Petition of Comcast Corporation and Time Warner Cable Inc.

Dear Ms. Burgess,

I am writing to ask the Public Service Commission to reject the merger proposal of Comcast and Time Warner Cable on the ground the companies have failed to show such a merger would be in the best interests of New York and its residents.

Although Time Warner Cable has never been a prize, Comcast’s reputation for bad service, high prices, rationed Internet access, and customer abuse is well documented in just about every community the company serves. Comcast has repeatedly been voted the “Worst Company in America” by Consumer Union’s Consumerist.com. The American Consumer Satisfaction Index has documented so many complaints about Comcast, it declared it the worst company it has ever scored, performing even worse than the Internal Revenue Service. For more than three years running, Harris Interactive has called Comcast one of the least reputable companies in America.

That alone should be enough to reject this merger out of hand. Permitting it would reward this company’s appalling behavior towards its own customers and expose New Yorkers to an even bigger monopoly problem than we deal with now. Unless you live in a Verizon FiOS service area, cable is your only real choice for true broadband speeds. DSL is rapidly losing favor and market share and Verizon has shown no interest in expanding it.

Comcast already uses its market power to its advantage by raising prices… a lot. Time Warner Cable charges less for its services than Comcast does.

For example, Time Warner Cable offers a standard television service package that provides all the popular cable networks for one price. Comcast offers a similar package but stripped out cable networks including Cloo, CNBC World, Al Jazeera America, Discovery Fit & Health, Disney XD, DIY, a range of ESPN’s extra networks, EWTN, Fine Living, Fox Business News, Great American Country, IFC, Investigation Discovery, Lifetime Real Women, Military Channel, MLB, most of MTV’s extra networks, NBA, National Geographic Channel, NFL Network, NHL Network, most of Nickelodeon’s extra networks, OWN, Oxygen, Sundance, Turner Classic Movies, The Science Channel, and VH1′s extra networks.

Customers who want these networks, like Turner Classic Movies, National Geographic, and IFC will have to pay a stunning price of up to $86 a month — just for television. Many of these networks are especially popular with fixed income older residents, who will now face an even larger cable TV bill.

Comcast promotes the fact its Internet speeds are faster than Time Warner Cable, but that is not true as Time Warner Maxx upgrades arrive. Comcast Internet service costs more, is slower, and increasingly usage-capped. Time Warner Cable has made clear it will not limit customers’ Internet usage. Comcast has made clear it will, predicting usage limits/usage-based pricing will be imposed on customers across its entire footprint within five years. That is no improvement for New York. That is literally a downgrade. We can do better in New York with Time Warner Cable.

In fact, the company has promised extremely little to New York after winning your approval to merge. Comcast is so arrogant, it already announced it will not share any cost savings with customers, promising even higher cable bills for New York with the merger. Even its touted X1 set top system will cost New Yorkers — it comes with a steep installation price of almost $100. Again, how does this serve the public interest?

Comcast’s public service programs are also woefully inadequate. Its Internet Essentials is a bureaucratic nightmare that only provides temporary discounts to a small percentage of customers (with school age children) who need an affordable Internet option. I guess childless couples and the elderly poor don’t matter. Time Warner Cable offers a $14.99 discount program available to anyone who wants it, no paperwork or waiting periods required.

It is my understanding Comcast must prove this merger is in the public interest to win your approval. It has utterly failed to do so, and I expect my state’s Public Service Commission to reject this merger. This is one deal that can never be modified sufficiently to make it acceptable for people like myself. You are doing us no favors trying to negotiate for an Internet discount program or expanding Comcast’s service area by a small amount in rural upstate New York. The end result is that millions of New Yorkers will get worse service than we get today, at a higher price, with little/no competition on the horizon.

This is a rare opportunity for our state, which lost most of its oversight powers over the cable industry years ago. Cable operators have abused their deregulated status and have raised prices, provided dreadful customer service, and have kept competition away. Letting Comcast into New York from Buffalo to the Bronx will only encourage more abuse, wreaking havoc on New York’s growing digital economy. Let’s send a clear message to Comcast New York isn’t willing to put our broadband future in the hands of “the worst company in America.” Let’s make it clear enough is enough.

Sincerely,

 

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